Frozen Four preview: Resilient freshmen come through at right time for Notre Dame

Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson knew what he was getting into at the start of the 2010-11 season when the Fighting Irish welcomed a dozen freshmen to campus.

In 1988, Jackson was an assistant coach at Lake Superior State when the Lakers won a national championship with 11 rookies on the roster. In 1992, he was head coach at LSSU with 13 freshmen on another national championship team.

At the start of this season, Jackson said, “We’re going to get experience under fire and that’s fine, as long as we develop throughout the season and finish much stronger than we started.”

After watching the CCHA regular-season title slip away in the last weekend of play and losing twice in the conference championship tournament, what Jackson didn’t expect was getting the chance to watch his team develop in a single weekend, as he said the Irish did in the Northeast Regional with two wins over Hockey East teams March 26 and 27.

“It’s kind of an unexpected treat for a young team that really has had signs of brilliance and signs of inconsistency,” said Jackson. “We obviously picked the right time to show a little bit of that consistency.”

The Irish have a total of 17 freshmen and sophomores on their roster — all players with no tournament experience because Notre Dame missed making the field last year. With only four seniors on the squad — and one, captain Joe Lavin, a transfer and relative newcomer — Jackson wasn’t sure what he’d get when his team took the ice against Merrimack and New Hampshire in Manchester, N.H.

“It was really well balanced,” said Jackson. “Obviously, when you’re dealing with a young group of kids you have to reemphasize things over and over and over, and the positive thing for me [was that] I saw for the first time our ability to do the things that are necessary over the entire game and not drift off. The opponents were obviously in our zone and had scoring chance opportunities but we never lost sight of what we needed to do.”

Two freshmen forwards lead the Irish in scoring, CCHA rookie of the year T.J. Tynan (22-31–53) and Anders Lee (24-20–44). While most people think of Notre Dame as a more conservative, defensive team, the key to much of the success this season was its scoring; the Irish average well over three goals per game (3.44).

Jackson said that every time people were ready to count out these young, inconsistent Irish players, they’ve come back. “I think that the youth has been a real positive in that regard,” said Jackson. “I just have to bite my lip and hold my breath sometimes with some of the things I see with their inexperience in the big environment.

“For me as a coach, this has been one of the more fun years I’ve had in a long time because of the youth. Certainly [it’s] caused some consternation as far as their consistency and some of the things that they do. The other side of it is that their resiliency has been pretty impressive.”