You would be right to think the 2017-18 season was the most historic in Notre Dame Fighting Irish hockey history. Losing in the national championship game by one goal to the underdog Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, the Irish have never before been as close to winning college hockey’s ultimate prize.
It’s no secret in the college hockey world that last year’s performance has earned the Irish the right to be considered one of the favorites coming into this season. Earlier this week, the USA Today and USA Hockey Magazine polls came out, ranking the Irish #2 and #3, respectively. Both have the defending national champions at the top spot.
Despite the heartbreaking finish, Irish hockey fans couldn’t have asked for a more exciting run. It was a season that saw an unlikely superstar emerge in goaltender Cale Morris. Perhaps more than anything else, the Irish earned a reputation for coming through in the clutch, with almost all of their games in postseason play coming down to the final seconds, including their overtime victory over the Michigan Wolverines in the Frozen Four. Notre Dame’s first year as a member of the Big Ten was certainly be one to remember.
Newest addition our rafters pic.twitter.com/bkLaQJGIXN— Notre Dame Hockey (@NDHockey) September 20, 2018
Perhaps the biggest loss coming into this season for Jeff Jackson’s team is Jake Evans, a 2014 seventh round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens. Evans, last year’s lone captain, scored a total of 46 points for the Irish last season (13 goals, 33 assists). He played 158 total games for the Irish, before signing a two year deal with the Habs.
Notre Dame also lost two alternate captains who signed entry level NHL contracts in Jordan Gross, who signed with the Arizona Coyotes, and Andrew Oglevie, who signed with the Buffalo Sabres. Defenseman Justin Wade and forward Bo Brauer also signed professional contracts with minor league teams after their senior seasons.
Despite losing some key pieces from last year’s squad, Irish fans should feel confident with the improvement this team can make from last season. Head coach Jeff Jackson has announced for the 2018-19 season, the captains will be junior defenseman Andrew Peeke, senior forward Jack Jenkins, senior forward Dylan Malmquist, senior defenseman Bobby Nardella and junior forward Cal Burke. All five captains played big roles in last year’s run to the national championship game. Another returning senior is Joe Wegwerth, a fourth round pick of the Florida Panthers, who had six goals and five assists last season.
Three incoming freshmen for the Irish are NHL draft picks. In this year’s draft, the New York Islanders took Notre Dame forward Jake Pivonka 103rd overall and the Nashville Predators took Notre Dame defenseman Spencer Stastney 131st overall. Defenseman Nick Leivermann was also selected 187th overall by the Colorado Anvalanche in 2017.
Another draft pick of the Avalanche that will skate for the Irish this season is Cam Morrison, who will look to bounce back from what some thought was a regression last season as a sophomore. Another returning NHL draft pick is sophomore defenseman Matt Hellickson, who was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 2017. Of course, their most important player coming back this year is junior goaltender Cale Morris, who was a first team All American selection. Morris was also selected as the Mike Richter Award winner, given to the nation’s top goaltender, thanks to a 1.94 GAA and .944 save percentage.
In their second year in the Big Ten, the Irish will once again face all six of their conference foes at home and on the road. Hockey season will begin with a home exhibition game against the U.S. National Team Development Program on October 7th before the Irish head to Erie, PA for the 2018 Icebreaker Tournament where they will face Mercyhurst on October 12th.
The Irish will be tested early, as their first four home games are against the only two teams ranked ahead of them in the USA Hockey Magazine poll. The first home game for the Irish will be rematch of last year’s national championship game when they welcome Minnesota-Duluth to Compton Family Ice Arena for games on October 26th and 27th. A week later, conference play begins when Notre Dame welcomes the Ohio State Buckeyes to their home arena.
Before this season, head coach Jeff Jackson, entering his fourteenth season at Notre Dame, had been a runner-up to the national champions twice in his coaching career, one other time with the Irish and once as head coach of the Lake Superior State Lakers. Both times, his teams managed to once again reach the NCAA Tournament. As one of the most respected head coaches in college hockey, I have no doubts that Jackson is ready to take this talented team back to the success they enjoyed last year.
The Big Ten, once again, looks to be one of the toughest conferences in hockey. Michigan and Ohio State both also rank in the top six of both major college hockey polls. That being said, it’s hard to see a team in the nation as talented as Notre Dame. Not only are they going to be a well-coached team, but they’re bringing back the best goaltender in the nation, and a defense that proved last year they can stop anyone when performing on all cylinders. This Notre Dame hockey team now knows what it’s like to make it all the way to playing for a national championship, only to fall short. All season long, they’ll use that as motivation. If 2017-18 was any indication of what this team is capable of, I can’t wait for the puck to drop on this season.