Frozen Four preview: Notre Dame OK with underdog role: ‘We’ve been there before’

Notre Dame defeated No. 1 seed Minnesota and No. 2 seed UMass Lowell in the regionals (photo: Richard T. Gagnon).

Let’s harken back to your days as a kid (or perhaps when your kids were kids), and let’s play the “Sesame Street” game of which of these things is not like the other.

Denver. Harvard. Minnesota Duluth. Notre Dame.

Frozen Four 2017

More coverage of the 2017 NCAA men's Frozen Four at Frozen Four Central.

The answer, of course, is Notre Dame.

The Irish are not like the others in one way because Notre Dame is the host of this year’s Frozen Four, and thus the event is in its backyard.

“It’s a good time to be Irish,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson says.

And he’s right. But not just because of the backyard, host factor. While Denver, Harvard and Duluth were all No. 1 seeds in their regionals, Notre Dame went into the Northeast Regional as the No. 4 seed and defied the odds, toppling No. 1 seed Minnesota and No. 2 seed UMass Lowell.

As such, the Irish are certainly underdogs against Denver in the semifinal game, and if they pull off the upset there, they’ll be underdogs once again in the national championship game.

But that doesn’t bother Jackson at all.

“We’ve been there before,” he says. “We’ve actually played better when we’re in that situation than when we’ve been seeded first or second.

“At this time of the year, seeding kind of goes out the window because there’s so many good college hockey teams that it’s hard to really evaluate. We played two really good teams this past weekend that very easily could be going to the Frozen Four.

“It’s hard to get there and it’s even harder when you get there. So we’re going to enjoy this opportunity and prepare ourselves to try to continue to do the things that we’ve been doing.”

Notre Dame went into the regionals on about as low a note as possible. UMass Lowell had dominated the Irish in the Hockey East semifinals, 5-1, a game that territorially felt even more lopsided than that score. In Jackson’s estimation, the team had the “deer in the headlights” look, playing on the big stage of Boston’s TD Garden, a much bigger stage than it had played on to that date.

“The Sunday morning of the selection show was right after we lost to Lowell,” Jackson says. “That’s the first time I addressed the team [other than] briefly after that game at the Garden.

“I was pretty stern with them on that Sunday morning, in fact I was actually mad at them for the first time in a long time that they cowered to the moment. I didn’t think that the team that I saw that day was anywhere close to the team that we have. I addressed it that morning, and that’s where it ended. We had to get prepared for the regional and I didn’t want to dwell on it.

“I asked our captains if they addressed it with their teammates and they had on that weekend because we had the long weekend after losing Friday night. So they addressed it as a team and I broached it on Sunday morning before the selection, and that was it.”

Clearly, the captains’ words along with Jackson’s got the job done. The Irish came back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat Minnesota, and rallied late to tie Lowell and then win in overtime.

Job done.

But if the big stage of the TD Garden rattled the Irish in the Hockey East semifinals, then what of the bigger stage of the United Center in the national semifinal game?

“Having gone through that experience helped us going into the regional, having been in that type of a situation, and I think it will help us going into the Frozen Four,” Jackson says. “But, obviously, there are a lot more potential distractions at the Frozen Four.

“You hope you learn from the first experience. I think our guys have grown since that point in time. People [at the regional] saw the type of team we’ve been playing with in the second half of the year.

“The Boston Garden game to me was an anomaly and I’m sure it was at the moment, but it was also UMass Lowell, which was a tremendous team. So that combination wasn’t a good combination for us.

“The good thing is that we recovered from it.”

In the regional, Notre Dame’s top players delivered the goods. Anders Bjork earned regional most outstanding player honors, logging gargantuan amounts of ice time and assisting in impressive fashion on all three Irish goals against Lowell.

“He has the ability to break a game open,” Jackson says.

Andrew Oglevie, the team’s second-leading scorer, put away the game-winner.

And goaltender Cal Petersen again showed why he was named a Hockey East first-team all-star, a member of the Northeast Regional all-tournament team and — a rarity for a goaltender — a team captain.

“He’s been our rock back there,” Jackson says. “He isn’t perfect, but he gives us a chance to win every night.”

Which the Irish certainly will have on Thursday, even if, once again, they’re the underdog.