Denver Hockey Series Preview: University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Photo courtesy John Leyba, The Denver Post

The NCAA must have been sweating it out last year experimenting with Chicago as a first-time destination for the Frozen Four.  The Windy City does not have any Division I hockey programs, and strangely neither does the rest of the state of Illinois despite a large number of top college players coming from that area.  Yet the NCAA rolled the dice on a major city that has recently gone hockey-crazy because of their Blackhawks.

Of the four Frozen Four finalists, Denver and Harvard weren’t assumed to be the big draws leaving it up to the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the University of Notre Dame to fill the 3rd largest hockey arena in North America.  The NCAA lucked out since Duluth brought a good amount of fans from Minnesota and the Fighting Irish seemingly drew their whole fan-base.

Unfortunately for the Fighting Irish fans, they had to see their hockey team fall to the Denver Pioneers 6-1 in a lopsided game that ended their season.

It seems like it was just yesterday when the Pioneers hoisted the NCAA championship trophy, but the summer has come and gone.  As the Pios embark on a new season as defending champs, they will start on the road the second week of October against a familiar foe, the Fighting Irish.

Who’s In?

The Fighting Irish’s incoming class features the New Jersey Devils 2017 7th round pick Matt Hellickson and 6’4 German forward Max Eisenmenger.  Overall, the Irish added four forwards, one defenseman, and two goalies for the 2017-18 season.

Who’s Out?

The Irish lost a couple captains from their 2016-17 Frozen Four roster that will be difficult to replace.  Forward Anders Bjork and goaltender Cal Petersen both decided to sign pro contracts with the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings, respectively.

Bjork was a 5th-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2014.  He led the Irish in goals (21), assists (31), and points (52) last season.

Peterson was the #1 goalie last season who put up great numbers for the Irish.  He was 23-12-5 with a goals-against average of 2.22 and a save-percentage of .926.  Peterson started all 40 games last season.

ND Strengths

The Fighting Irish lost their leading scorer, but are returning a handful of defensemen who are looking to build on last season.  Luke Ripley, Andrew Peeke, Jordan Gross, and Dennis Gilbert make up a strong defensive core that will be hard to score on this year.

Gross had the most productive season offensively scoring 10 goals and 22 assists in 40 games last season.  Gilbert (2015-CHI-3) and Peeke (2016-CBJ-2) are two 6’2 200 pound defenseman who will be looking to continue another strong defensive campaign this season.

ND Weaknesses

The elephant in the room has to be the loss of Cal Petersen.  Losing Bjork is a big for the forward group, but Petersen stood on his head all year to help the Fighting Irish earn a Frozen Four appearance.

What Jim Montgomery did so well in the Frozen Four against the Irish was game-plan to expose Petersen.  The speedy Pioneers kept the in puck deep and wore out the big Irish defenders, capitalizing on several defensive lapses in their defensive zone.  Look for more of the same in this series.

Key Stats

  • ND 2016 home record vs. non-conf. teams:  8-3-1
  • ND 2016 shots per game:  32.8
  • ND 2016 goals per game:  3.2
  • 41% of ND’s total goals came in the 3rd period in 2016

Who to watch

#18 – F Jake Evans – 40GP 13G 29A 52PTS

#15 – F Andrew Oglevie – 40GP 21G 20A 41PTS

#3 – D Jordan Gross – 40GP 10G 22A 32PTS

#26 – F Cam Morrison – 40GP 12G 12A 24PTS

#1 – G Dylan St. Cyr – Freshman goalie

Prediction – Denver splits the series with Notre Dame

The Pioneers lost a major piece of their team in captain Will Butcher, but returning stars Henrik Borgstrom, Troy Terry, and Dylan Gambrell will keep the Pios at the top of the national ranks.  Last season, the Pioneers started slow out of the gate losing games to Ohio State and Boston University in the Ice Breaker Tournament and a similar start may be evident this season.  It will take a couple games for the Pioneers to back into shape for Montgomery’s high-energy system and for new captain Tariq Hammond to settle in after his injury in the National Championship game back in April.

The Fighting Irish have started the season strong with two wins against the University of Alabama-Huntsville last weekend.  Forward Jake Evans leads the team with 2 goals and 3 assists while freshman goaltender Dylan St. Cyr posted an impressive 34-save shutout in his first Division I NCAA start.

With the Pioneers itching to get back into action for the first time this season and the Fighting Irish looking to get revenge from last year’s Frozen Four, this weekend’s series at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend should not disappoint.