Notebook: Talented seniors key for Notre Dame hockey run

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SAINT PAUL, Minn. — When goalie Cal Petersen and forward Anders Bjork decided to forego their senior seasons at Notre Dame following last season’s trip to the NCAA Frozen Four, there probably were many who believed the Irish wouldn’t be back at this year’s event that began with Thursday’s semifinals at the Xcel Energy Center.

But Jeff Jackson’s Irish are back as college hockey’s No. 1 team (USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine/American Hockey Coaches Association poll). The Big Ten’s regular-season and tournament champion, Notre Dame (27-9-2), met conference rival Michigan (22-14-3) in Thursday’s second semifinal. The first one matched Big Ten runner-up Ohio State (26-9-5) against Minnesota Duluth (23-16-3) of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

Bjork, an All-American and Notre Dame’s leading scorer with 21 goals and 52 points, signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins last May. Petersen, the team’s captain, signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Los Angeles Kings after playing in all 40 games for the Irish (23-12-5) and finishing with a 2.22 goals-against average, a .926 save percentage and six shutouts.

Despite their losses, the Irish returned, thanks to a 16-game winning streak that included 13 straight in the first season in the Big Ten, and, in large part because sophomore Cale Morris, who is up for the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender, more than adequately replaced Petersen.

Morris, the Big Ten Player of the Year, had a 1.91 goals-against average entering Thursday’s game with the Wolverines thanks to four shutouts and a nation-leading .945 save percentage.

Senior center Jake Evans replaced Petersen as team captain and led the Irish in scoring with 31 assists and 42 points, and senior defenseman Jordan Gross, who scored 10 goals and 28 assists, led an experienced defense in front of Morris.

In an era when the top college hockey players are encouraged to sign with NHL clubs before receiving their diplomas, Evans and Gross were among seven seniors who came back and were saluted by their coach for doing so.

“We’re fortunate this year that we actually have some quality players that are seniors,” said Jackson, who was directing his fourth Frozen Four team in his 13 years at Notre Dame. “I mean, that’s a rarity in today’s game. When you get them, players of that caliber that stick around for four years, it’s a positive for a program. And frankly I think it’s a positive for the player. Getting their degree, there’s a lot of value to that.

“The four-year player — that’s the olden days,” Jackson added, looking to his left at Gross and Evans at Wednesday’s press conference. “I miss those days because I think that there’s something to be said for them. I would bet these two guys here wouldn’t trade this year for anything because it’s the best year of your life, especially when you get to be a part of a great team.”

Oglevie future leader for Irish

Despite scoring his team’s game-tying goal and assisting on Dylan Malmquist’s game-winner in Notre Dame’s 2-1 championship-game victory over Providence in the East Regional at Bridgeport, Conn., two weekends ago, center Andrew Oglevie, a 5-10, 181-pound junior from Fullerton, Calif., went unnoticed in the post-game honors. The No. 1 star was Malmquist, No. 2 was Providence goalie Hayden Hawkey and No. 3 was Notre Dame goalie Morris.

Jackson, though, knows Oglevie’s value after a season during which he scored 13 goals, seven on the power play and four of them game-winners, and finished with 36 points. Jackson moved him off Evans’ right wing to center the second line with Cal Burke and Malmquist.

An alternate captain this season, Oglevie figures to be the captain next year after Evans graduates.

“In some ways he’s better on the wing because he utilizes his speed a little more,” Jackson said. “I think for offensive depth we needed Andrew to play center. He’s a responsible player at center, so he does a great job in that aspect. With his skating and puck skills, he’s got a lot of positive attributes. He does a great job on our penalty kill and he’s a key guy on the power play. He’s certainly a guy that can change a game with his skill and ability.”

Frozen Four fans from everywhere

Walking around the Xcel Energy Center, naturally, were fans of the four participating teams — and fans of other teams not here. The Frozen Four truly has become an annual pilgrimage for many.

North Dakota, which beat Duluth 4-1 in the NHCH consolation game and yet was left out of the 16-team NCAA field, had its share of hockey fans sporting jerseys. So, too, did Maine, Wisconsin, Boston College, Northern Michigan, St. Cloud State, Connecticut, Denver, and hometown Minnesota.

Even Michigan State, which finished last in the seven-team Big Ten, had fans on hand.

Early Thursday afternoon, the Cathedral of Saint Paul, a nearly 44,000-square-feet building with a distinctive copper-clad dome that overlooks the city and the Xcel Energy Center below it, was the site of a meeting between four Notre Dame band members and five Michigan State fans who have rooted for their Spartans and have been coming to the Frozen Four since the days of late Spartan coaches Amo Bessone and Ron Mason, who coached championship teams.

A good contingent of former Notre Dame hockey alumni gathered at McGovern’s just down from the Xcel Energy Center and hope to do it again Saturday if the Irish make the 7:30 p.m. EDT championship game that will be televised by ESPN.

Big Ten is now a Big Deal

With Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan, which finished 1-2-3 in the Big Ten regular season, reaching the Frozen Four, the Big Ten joined three other leagues to have three representatives in the same Frozen Four.

The Western Collegiate Hockey Association, of which Notre Dame became a member in 1971-72, once had four members comprise the Frozen Four. That occurred in 2005 when Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota and North Dakota played in Columbus, Ohio, with Denver beating North Dakota 4-1 for its second straight NCAA title under George Gwozdecky.

The WCHA had three teams in the 1981 Frozen Four at Duluth, Minn. — Michigan Tech, Minnesota and Wisconsin — and Badger Bob Johnson’s Wisconsin prevailed over Minnesota, 6-3.

In 1999, Hockey East sent Boston College, New Hampshire and Maine to the Frozen Four in Anaheim, Calif., and Maine would beat New Hampshire in overtime, 3-2, for former Michigan State assistant Shawn Walsh’s second title.

In 1992, the now defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association sent three teams — Michigan, Michigan State and Lake Superior State — to the Frozen Four at Albany, N.Y., and Jeff Jackson’s Lakers prevailed with a 5-3 victory over Wisconsin.

The Lakers would lose to Walsh’s Maine team the following year at Milwaukee, but Jackson would guide Lake State to the title in 1994 with a 9-1 victory over Boston University at St. Paul.