MANCHESTER, N.H. — Jeff Jackson won two national championships as the head coach of Lake Superior State in 1992 and 1994, but this might be his best coaching job yet. His Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a team whose regular lineup comprises an incredible nine freshmen, are going to the Frozen Four for the second time in program history after beating New Hampshire 2-1 in Sunday night’s Northeast regional final.
What’s even more impressive is that the Irish were able to accomplish that after playing some of their worst hockey of the season the last three weekends. Given the fact that Notre Dame entered the NCAA tournament on a 2-4-0 skid, it would’ve been easy to leave the Fighting Irish for dead and expect an early exit.
So what changed for the Irish to turn things around? Jackson played some head games with his team. Literally.
Jackson said that after watching his team lose to Miami in the CCHA semifinals last Friday and then again to Michigan in the consolation game Saturday, he thought his team looked nervous. That certainly isn’t overly surprising given the team’s youth, but Jackson knew that couldn’t happen again this weekend.
So he decided to talk to Mick Franco, a sports psychologist at Notre Dame.
“I had a good chat with our university’s sports psychologist and I have to credit him with talking to me about some certain things that maybe we as a team have gone through, because we are young,” Jackson said. “I’m going to credit him for some thoughts on how best to prepare our team to get over that. I used some of the techniques that he discussed and just tried to get them refocused to play in a very tough environment with very tough opponents.”
The move paid off big-time, as the Irish refused to get rattled all weekend. Saturday night, they twice trailed Merrimack by two goals, but they came back to force overtime. Then they got badly outplayed to start overtime, but Jackson called a timeout to settle his players down and they responded with the game-winning goal the next shift.
Sunday night was more of the same. UNH nearly doubled up Notre Dame in shots in the first period, but the Irish entered the intermission with a 1-0 lead. Then the Wildcats turned up the heat at the end of the second and threatened to tie the game, only to see Notre Dame weather the storm and score a back-breaking goal with five seconds left in the period.
With the Wildcats down by two and playing desperate in third, the Irish didn’t sit back or get caught on their heels. Instead, they just kept playing their game and actually outshot UNH 16-9 in the frame.
“We recognize there’s a lot of little plays on the ice,” said junior Billy Maday, who had two goals and an assist on the weekend. “We can’t get over-excited or down, no matter what happens. Just stay even-keel.”
Not only did Notre Dame’s young players not look nervous or rattled, but they turned out to be the catalysts, just as they’ve been most of the season.
The best player for Notre Dame all weekend was goalie Mike Johnson, a sophomore. He stopped 32 shots Saturday night, including six during the first five minutes of overtime, and followed that up with a spectacular 37-save performance Sunday night.
Johnson was inconsistent at times during the regular season, but he clearly brought his A-game to Manchester.
“I try to convince the kid that he can be one of the best goaltenders in college hockey,” Jackson said. “He’s only a sophomore, people have to recognize that. I have to recognize that once in a while.
“Michael’s biggest challenge is that he wants to do well so bad that he ends up thinking it too much. I keep reminding him in all the goalie drills that we do that it’s more about just getting into the game and stopping the puck. You don’t think during the game. You just play. Tonight he just played.”
The youngsters led the way at the other end of the ice, too. Rookie winger Anders Lee scored two of the Irish’s four goals Saturday night, including the game-winner, and freshman defenseman Stephen Johns scored the first goal Sunday night.
“Obviously we’re thrilled to death,” Jackson said. “For this group to accomplish what they have this year with so many young kids is incredible. A lot of that credit goes to the leaders of the team that helped create a great bond amongst them.”