A Natural Progression

When the Notre Dame Fighting Irish made an appearance at Joe Louis Arena at the end of the 1999-2000 season, even though the Irish lost 4-0 to Michigan State in the semifinal round, the players were just happy to have been there, happy to have taken a step for the program.

This year, when Notre Dame dropped a tough 3-1 decision to Northern Michigan, there was a sense of accomplishment, but tempered by the disappointment of almost.

That, said head coach Dave Poulin, is step in the right direction.

“The last time we were here two years ago, we came in and were no match at all for Michigan State. We were beaten four-nothing, and it was over early in the game. Tonight obviously that wasn’t the case. We’ve taken that step as a team. Hopefully, next time we’re back at Joe Louis we can take another step.”

There is reason for the Irish to hope. With a total of 15 freshmen and sophomores on this year’s roster, Notre Dame went into the Omaha Civic Center — arguably the toughest playoff venue in the CCHA — and beat the Mavericks two games out of three in the first-round playoff series Mar. 8-10, forcing a Game Three by winning in overtime Saturday, after losing in double OT the night before.

As tough as the loss to the Wildcats in the CCHA Quarterfinals was to take, Notre Dame can look at the trip to the Super Six as a necessary lesson learned.

“There’s only one way to get experience, and that’s to go through it,” said Poulin. “The experience we had out in Nebraska, I can’t tell you how much that meant to us to go into an environment like that and win, especially to win after losing the first game in double overtime, to come back and win in overtime Saturday night and to beat them Sunday … that’s got to be a learning experience for us.”

After the loss, Notre Dame freshman netminder Morgan Cey said that he was not satisfied at all with coming to JLA only to lose. “I’m really, really disappointed right now, but at the same time I have a lot of excitement for the future. We’ve shown everyone the great team we’ll have in the next few years.”

“I’m excited,” echoed junior forward Connor Dunlop. “We’re not losing too many guys — obviously, the big guy in David Inman. The majority is coming back … a great solid group.”

To what can this Irish turnaround be attributed? Two things: coaching and chemistry.

At the start of the season, Poulin and his staff emphasized offense, since the Irish had struggled with scoring in recent years. Midway through the campaign, however, Poulin realized that Notre Dame was sacrificing defense for offense, and the coach adjusted his system to play a simpler game that relied on good defense to create solid offense.

“We were doing well offensively for a while, but we were giving up way too many goals,” said Dunlop. “After that we switched our system around and we all bought into it right away. It was a lot more defensive-minded, but at the same time it allowed some of the guys who are a lot more offensive-minded to still have that freedom, so it worked out well.”

As for the chemistry, both Dunlop and Inman said that this year’s team was one cohesive unit. “This was just a great team this year,” said Dunlop. “There were no cliques, there were no problems with the team, there was just a great group of guys. From day one, we jelled.”

Inman, who scored the only Irish goal in his last collegiate hockey game, “In the last two months, this has been the best team I’ve been a part of, not only on the ice but away. We’re a really tight team. As soon as we had some success, we started believing in each other, and we started playing with confidence.”

In the postgame press conference following the 3-1 loss to Northern Michigan, Poulin was already putting this game behind him, already looking ahead to Notre Dame’s potential for next season.

“We had two seniors in the lineup,” said Poulin, “five freshmen and sophomores on defense, and a freshman goalie. Fifteen minutes the game, I’m very excited about the future of this team.”