Who: No. 4 Notre Dame (23-11-5) vs. No. 1 Denver (31-7-4)
When: 9:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Where: United Center; Chicago, Ill.
Radio: 94.3 FM (WZOC)
In the sometimes strange world of single elimination hockey, consistency is elusive.
Getting into the 16-team NCAA tournament field is an accomplishment in itself. Two wins gets a program out of the regionals and into the Frozen Four. Simple enough. Yet it’s become more difficult by the year as parity permeates the college hockey landscape.
Consider this: Over the last decade, not once have all four No. 1 seeds advanced all the way to the national semifinals. Half the time the champion hasn’t been a top seed. Providence and Yale won titles in 2015 and 2013, respectively, as No. 4 seeds.
Jeff Jackson has seen this trend up close. He won multiple national championships at Lake Superior State in the 1990s. As the head coach at Notre Dame, he’s been a postseason regular.
“For me it’s about how you’re playing at that time of the year more than anything else,” Jackson said. “Since I’ve been at Notre Dame we’ve been to a couple other Frozen Fours. Both cases, it’s almost deja vu, maybe we don’t have a great conference tournament then we come back and have a great regional.”
Now in its 12th season, Jackson’s tenure at Notre Dame illustrates the point further.
Three times now the Irish have advanced to the Frozen Four. They’ve not been a top seed in any of those instances, including this season’s run as a No. 4 seed.
They advanced to the national championship game in 2008 as a No. 4 seed, losing to Boston College in the end. Minnesota-Duluth ousted Notre Dame, a No. 3 seed, in the 2011 semifinal en route to winning the title.
Jackson’s squad in 2009 racked up over 30 wins, won a CCHA title and secured a No. 1 seed then lost to Bemidji State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Again in 2013 the Irish grabbed a top seed after winning the CCHA tournament. St. Cloud State played spoiler in the NCAA opener.
“Each time it’s different,” Jackson said. “You just hope the hockey gods are watching over you because there’s a lot of factors involved, some of them you control and some of them you don’t because you’re playing two opponents you haven’t seen. You have different officials than you’re accustomed to. You’ve got the bright lights and the big buildings. You don’t know how your team is gonna respond to that. You’ve got different type of things that every team responds to in a different way. You just hope you’ve prepared them for being in that moment.”
Given the unpredictable nature of the tournament, advancing out of the Northeast Regional this year as a No. 4 seed to face top-ranked Denver in tonight’s national semifinal is viewed as a rare achievement.
No player on the current Notre Dame roster has played at this stage of the season. They’re fulfilled in some ways by reaching this point.
“It’s a huge accomplishment,” winger Anders Bjork said. “I think we’ve known how good a team we can be and we’ve seen it at times throughout the year. But to all be clicking at the same time, at the exact right time at the end of the year, is a really good thing. It’s a positive thing and something we’re proud of and gonna work really hard to continue.”
On the flip side, Notre Dame over the last 10 years has made this more of a regular occurrence.
Only three programs have made at least three Frozen Four appearances in the last decade: Boston College (five), North Dakota (five) and Notre Dame (three). Eight programs have made it to the Frozen Four twice. Another 11 have done so once.
Viewed through that prism, the Irish have become a college hockey blue blood. What’s missing? Winning the whole thing.
“I think that’s great,” Jackson said. “But to me it’s still about winning it. Getting there is one thing. Winning it is something different. It’s a lot more challenging. I’ve been fortunate to be part of I think seven Frozen Fours, one as an assistant coach. I think getting there is one thing but having that mindset, we need to take the next step.
“It’s never easy. And like I’ve said many times, everything kinda has to go your way to win it. It boils down to a lot of factors, some you have control over and some you don’t.”
Given recent history, Notre Dame is likely to return to the Frozen Four at some point in the not-so-distant future. But it might not be until everyone on the current roster has departed the program. That’s reality, more or less.
Jackson will run out a squad tonight that includes just two seniors: Forward Ben Ostlie and backup goalie Chad Katunar. Even so, the players set to take the ice tonight in Chicago do so with an understanding that getting another opportunity in the Frozen Four is not to be taken for granted.
As the NCAA tournament often reveals, making it this far isn’t a given. Even for those programs that do it on a more regular basis than most.
“That’s how we’re approaching it,” goalie Cal Petersen said. “I think we kinda have the mindset that we’re not just happy to be there. We’re going to make a statement. I think we have a legitimate chance to make some noise and hopefully come back with a championship. But I think these last couple months we’ve really put ourselves on the map and for it to be rewarded with a chance at a national championship is really special to us.”