Notebook: Plenty for Notre Dame hockey to celebrate despite disappointing finish

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

The last picture of the 2017-18 Notre Dame hockey season should not be one of several players, their heads down, one knee on the ice, watching Minnesota Duluth celebrate the championship it had just won with a 2-1 victory last Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minn.

For what Jeff Jackson’s Irish accomplished this 28-10-2 season — the 50th of the modern era — the tears of disappointment should be replaced with smiles of fulfillment.

“As I told them, this is as much fun as I’ve had in a year with a group of kids in my career,” said Jackson, who has taken Notre Dame to four Frozen Fours and two title games in his 13 seasons.

“They are close, they are friends, they come to work every day,” Jackson continued in an interview with WSBT’s Adam Derengowski. “The whole season they may have had one bad practice. They accomplished a heckuva lot.”

• A school-record 16-game winning streak.

• Thirteen of those victories started Notre Dame’s first season as an affiliate member of the Big Ten Conference as the Irish took the Big Ten regular-season title with a 17-6-1-1 record in the league.

• They beat Penn State 3-2 in the semifinals and Ohio State 3-2 in overtime on March 17 to secure the Big Ten playoff title.

• They spent seven weeks as the No. 1 team in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine/American Hockey Coaches Association poll, battling back from No. 4 on March 5 to be No. 1 going into the Frozen Four in Saint Paul. They were No. 1 in the media poll for five weeks and finished second in the final poll to champion Duluth.

• Sophomore goalie Cale Morris, who played just 19 minutes and 43 seconds in relief of ironman captain Cal Petersen in the 2016-17 season, was named a first-team All-American and winner of the Mike Richter Goaltender of the Year Award with a nation-leading .945 save percentage, a 27-8-1 record (fourth) and 1.94 goals-against average (eighth) with four shutouts (12th).

A remarkable season of accomplishment, though it came up two goals short of Notre Dame’s first hockey national title. The season was fueled by the memory of last season’s 6-1 season-ending loss to eventual NCAA champion Denver at the 2017 Frozen Four.

Notre Dame wanted a different ending, but an inability to transition out of the neutral zone led to two costly mistakes that gave the Bulldogs a 2-0 lead early in the second period. And while Andrew Oglevie cut the lead in half with a power-play goal in the period, the Irish managed just five shots in the third period and 20 all night against Duluth, which threw 35 at Morris.

“It’s a tough time right now; we worked so hard,” said Jake Evans, the 21-year-old captain who led the Irish with 46 points (13 goals, 33 assists) after a 2-2-4 performance in the Frozen Four. “I’m sure in a few days we’ll be proud of what we’ve done.”

They should be.

Seniors departing

Evans is one of seven seniors departing the program. Defenseman Jordan Gross, who played in all 159 games Notre Dame played during his four seasons, finished third on the team behind Evans and junior Andrew Oglevie (15-24-39) in scoring with 10 goals and 20 assists.

Evans, a Toronto native whose NHL draft rights are held by the Montreal Canadiens, finished his career in 21st place on the all-time scoring list with 138 points (41 goals, 97 assists). Gross finished his career with 121 points, two short of the defenseman’s record of 123 held by John Schmidt (1978-82).

Also departing are third-line left wing Dawson Cook (6-2-8), fourth-line right wing Bo Brauer (5-3-8) and defensemen Justin Wade (0-3-3), Luke Ripley (0-0-0) and Tony Bretzman (0-0-0).

They leave with an 88-52-19 record in four seasons, the first three in Hockey East; three straight trips to the NCAA tournament, and two straight Frozen Fours. 

Players returning

Sixteen of the 21 players who suited for the championship game return, including goalies Morris and freshmen Dylan St. Cyr and Nick Sanford.

The Irish return 12 of their top 14 scorers, led by Oglevie, sophomore right wing Cal Burke (14-12-26), junior defenseman Bobby Nardella (5-19-24), sophomore left wing Cam Morrison (8-14-22) and junior left wing Dylan Malmquist (9-11-20).

It would not be surprising to see Oglevie step into the captain’s role, though Jackson could opt for Morris as he did with Cal Petersen two seasons ago.

Nardella leads a veteran defensive group that includes junior Dennis Gilbert (4-6-10), sophomore Andrew Peeke (5-9-14), sophomore Tony Dello (1-1-2) and freshman Matt Hellickson (3-9-12).

Incoming freshmen

Notre Dame already has announced the signing of eight players and some college hockey websites have as many of 12 newcomers joining the team next season.

The eight include forward Graham Slaggert, the son of associate coach Andy Slaggert, and forwards Cam Burke (brother of Cal) and Alex Steeves (brother of Matt).

Two players with Culver Military Academy ties – defenseman Nate Clurman and 6-foot-5 right wing Jack MacNab – are among the announced as is center Jake Pivonka of the USA U18 team. Pivonka’s father Michal played center for 14 seasons with the NHL Washington Capitals.

Next season’s schedule

Although it doesn’t become official until the Faculty Board in Control of Athletics gives its approval sometime later this spring or early summer, Notre Dame will open the season playing in the 2018 IceBreaker Tournament, hosted by Mercyhurst at the Erie (Pa.) Insurance Arena Oct. 12-13.

The Irish will play Mercyhurst (of the Atlantic Hockey league) in the second game on Oct. 12 following the opener between Providence (Hockey East) and Miami (National Collegiate Hockey Conference).

Jackson mentioned at the Frozen Four that the Irish would host Duluth, probably in late October before the Big Ten season begins.

And, of course, Notre Dame will play an outdoors game in Notre Dame Stadium in conjunction to the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins on New Year’s Day. Among the rumored teams who could play Notre Dame are old Hockey East rival Boston College or Michigan in a non-conference game.

Notre Dame players react to the goal that won the game against Michigan during the third period of a semifinal in the NCAA men's Frozen Four hockey tournament Thursday in St. Paul, Minn. Notre Dame won 4-3. (AP Photo/STACY BENGS)