With 12 seasons as a college head coach under his belt, Notre Dame’s Jeff Jackson has learned a number of lessons in his time. Among these: the years that you think you’ve got a Frozen Four team aren’t necessarily the years you get there.
In his second season behind the bench in South Bend, Jackson guided the Fighting Irish to the 2007 CCHA regular-season and playoff championships, and headed to Grand Rapids, Mich., for the NCAA Midwest Regional with an excellent chance at adding a third national championship to a résumé that already included a pair of national championships at Lake Superior State in the mid-1990s. However, Notre Dame was pushed to the limit by an Alabama-Huntsville team that took the Irish to double overtime in the final game of head coach Doug Ross’ career, then eliminated the following day by the eventual NCAA Champion, Michigan State.
There were no CCHA championships to speak of in 2008. Hobey Baker finalist David Brown had graduated, leaving backup Jordan Pearce and freshman Brad Phillips to fill the void in net. The Fighting Irish went 22-12-4 in the regular season, finished fourth at the CCHA Championship in Detroit, and headed out to Colorado Springs for the NCAA West Regional as the fourth seed in a region that included top regional seed New Hampshire, host Colorado College, and the reigning NCAA Champions from Michigan State. The Fighting Irish thumped the Wildcats, avenged the previous season’s loss to the Spartans, and went on to the Frozen Four in Denver, beating top overall seed Michigan before falling to Boston College in the NCAA Championship game.
This year, there’s no shadow of a missed opportunity, but with freshmen T.J. Tynan and Anders Lee leading the team, Notre Dame’s best days may still be ahead. Still, having defeated Merrimack and New Hampshire at the NCAA Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H., the Irish plan to make the most of the opportunity they have, as they’ll face Minnesota-Duluth on Thursday in the first semifinal at the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
“Obviously,” Jackson said, “we’re thrilled to death to be coming to St. Paul and the Frozen Four. It’s kind of an unexpected treat for a young team that really has had signs of brilliance and signs of inconsistency. We obviously picked the right time to show a bit of consistency in New Hampshire. I’m very proud of the team. They really paid a price to win two games. Dressing 10 or 11 freshmen every night, guys that have shown signs of nervousness at times in big-game situations, we responded both nights at different times in the game. All signs show that we’re growing up.”
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For all the growing up the young Irish have had to do, Tynan and Lee have made an instant impact in their freshman season. Tynan, a native of Orland Park, Illinois who flew under the NHL scouts’ radar at 5-foot-8 and 156 pounds, has played huge as a first-year player with 22 goals and 31 assists, leading all NCAA freshmen in scoring. Not far behind is Lee, a native of Edina, Minnesota, who has 24 goals and 20 assists to his name.
Playing in the championship atmosphere at the Frozen Four, one might question how the young Irish stars will respond. However, when those questions come up, Jackson has only to look to his seniors: Ryan Guentzel, Calle Ridderwall and Ben Ryan were freshmen on the 2008 team, with Guentzel and Ridderwall coming up big when the Irish needed them most in the semifinal game against Michigan.
“Ryan Guentzel set up Ridderwall for the game-winner against Michigan that year,” Jackson said. “Ben Ryan had an exceptional tournament as well. Those kids having been there is certainly big. Those guys have done such a great job all season long of making sure that when things get a little bit too high or a little bit too low, they’ve pulled the group back together. I can’t say enough about our four seniors, as far as the job they’ve done this year. They’ve led when they’ve needed to, and they’ve backed off when they don’t need to. They’re all great kids, and they’re the ones that deserve this opportunity as much as anyone, because they worked hard to get the team to this point. I’m sure they’ll have a real positive influence on the group. They’re sometimes the best coaches we have.”
As good as they may be, Jackson is one of the most respected head coaches in the sport, which is what makes his praise of his team’s closeness, from the seniors to the freshmen, so impactful.
“This is one of the closest teams I’ve ever coached,” Jackson said, “maybe the closest. They really care about each other. I think people may have even seen that on the ice after the game. They were all together and arm-in-arm when our alma mater was being played. That was a first, but I think it’s an indication of how close they are and how much pride they have in Notre Dame. It’s pretty entertaining from my perspective. They celebrate together, enjoy each other’s company, and are ready to move on to college hockey’s biggest stage.”
They might be a bit early to that stage, but come Thursday, they’ll be ready for showtime.