This year, for the second time in a five-season stretch, Jeff Jackson and Notre Dame found themselves being the new kids on the block in a conference.
Conference association aside, the Irish now find themselves at the Frozen Four for the second consecutive year.
“We’re excited about getting back [to the Frozen Four],” Jackson said. “I think last year was a good learning experience for our guys and we’re hoping that the experience that they had is going to help them be better prepared for what they’re going to face.”
Notre Dame knew going in that last postseason was going to be its last in Hockey East and that the Big Ten was on the horizon. Jackson said that the move was an obvious one for the university.
“Just from a geographical perspective, it made a lot of sense for us to be more in the Midwest, and I think that’s helped us as far as our fan base and our team as far as travel,” he said. “It’s created more of a buzz in our building and it’s been nothing but a positive experience thus far. The conference, I think, is only going to get better over the next couple years.”
When the Irish left Hockey East for the Big Ten, it gave the young conference seven teams. Having an odd number led to a semi-wonky schedule and meant that most teams, except Michigan State, had already played a conference game before the Irish got a crack at one of their new conference foes.
Notre Dame had a 4-3-1 nonconference record when it faced Ohio State the first weekend of November. The Irish were coming off of a win against Omaha the weekend prior. They ended up sweeping the Buckeyes for their first Big Ten wins and followed that performance up with consecutive sweeps of Penn State, Rensselaer, Minnesota, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Michigan.
After taking down Wisconsin on Jan. 20, Notre Dame’s 16-game winning streak finally ended two days later in Chicago.
After not losing for 2½ months, the Irish rightfully had a stranglehold on first place in the Big Ten. But Jackson said he was impressed with their new league.
“The conference this year was outstanding,” he said. “Every team in the conference got better and it made it really challenging for us as the season progressed.”
He’s not being polite. After the Badgers ended Notre Dame’s streak with a 5-0 win at the United Center, which was coincidentally the same building in which Denver ended Notre Dame’s season last year, the Irish went 4-5-1 the rest of the regular season.
“We were very fortunate to get the lead that we had in the regular season with that winning streak that we had,” Jackson said. “Because we found out in the second half how challenging the conference is and how much better it got.”
Notre Dame, which left the CCHA for Hockey East in 2013, ended up winning the Big Ten by eight points over second-place Ohio State. Jackson said he saw a noticeable drop-off in his team’s play after it mathematically clinched the league. There were questions about whether the Irish would be able to find the switch to turn their game back on for the postseason.
They found said switch.
Notre Dame won two one-goal games during the Big Ten tournament and won two more one-goal games in the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn., to get to the school’s fourth Frozen Four.
“I think that this past weekend our team played two tight games against two very good hockey teams,” Jackson said. “We’re very fortunate to move forward.”