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Thursday, June 13, 2024
The Observer

Hoonhout: While you weren't watching, the Irish have started red-hot

For all of Notre Dame’s success last season, highlighted by the incredible run to the program’s third Frozen Four in program history this past spring, there were a lot of question marks surrounding the program heading into the season.

Not only did the No. 4 Irish (12-3-1, 6-0-0 Big Ten) head into uncharted territory as the team began its first season in the Big Ten, but Notre Dame lost arguably its two best players last season in forward Anders Bjork and goalie Cal Petersen, who both left for the NHL.

The departure of the juniors left a gaping hole both at the front end — where Bjork led the Irish in goals, assists and points — as well as in net, where Petersen started all 40 games on the year and 90 consecutive for the Irish over the last three seasons, the fourth-longest streak in NCAA history.

But Notre Dame has stepped up to the challenge.

After a relatively slow start to the year saw the team open with a 4-3-1 record and only one sweep of Alabama-Huntsville in the season opener, the Irish have rattled off four straight sweeps and nine straight wins, becoming the first team in Big Ten history to start the season with a 6-0 record, and currently hold the longest active win streak in the country. The key? The program has found new talent in senior forward Jake Evans and sophomore goalie Cale Morris to replace the lost stars from last year.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish senior forward and captain Jake Evans pursues the puck during Notre Dame's 5-3 win over Penn State on Nov. 10 at Compton Family Ice Arena.

While Evans finished second on the team in points last season, much of his production was overshadowed by the heroics of Bjork and current-junior forward Andrew Oglevie, whose overtime goal against UMass-Lowell sent the Irish to the Frozen Four. But after being named captain for the season, the senior and Toronto native has stepped up in a huge way offensively.

Evans currently leads all college hockey with 25 points, aided in large part by a nation-leading 19 assists, as well as a nation-leading 229 faceoff wins. As the principal facilitator for the Irish offensively, Evans has been a force to be reckoned with and has helped bring a balanced look to the Irish in front of the net, dishing to veterans like Oglevie but also bringing new faces like freshman forward Colin Theisen up to speed.

But perhaps even more impressive has been the play of Notre Dame’s net-minder. Morris came into the year locked in a battle for the starting job with freshman goaltender Dylan St. Cyr, and neither could emerge as a clear frontrunner for the position through the first six games of the season.

In the fourth series of the year, Irish head coach Jeff Jackson started St. Cyr in the first game against old rivals Nebraska-Omaha, but after the freshman gave up five goals in two periods, Jackson turned to Morris for a crack at it. While the Irish ended up losing the game 6-4, Morris stopped all five shots he faced in the third period, and when Notre Dame played the Mavericks the following night, it was Morris who started in net, and eventually won the contest 5-4.

Eight games later, and Morris has emerged as a star in the making for the Irish.

After the Irish gave up four or more goals in four of their eight games to start the year, Morris and Notre Dame have yet to give up four goals in the past eight games. The sophomore has been a dominant force in net during the current win streak, currently leading the country with a .952 save percentage and a .917 win percentage, while ranked second with 11 wins and a 1.62 goals-against average.

Morris also won his third straight Big Ten First Star of the Week on Tuesday, becoming the first player in conference history to earn the honor in three consecutive weeks.

With such dominant play on both ends, it’s no surprise that the Irish are on their hottest run since 2009, when Notre Dame rattled off 10 straight wins. But with football season still in session and both Irish basketball programs off to tremendous starts, it’s easy to see why attendance has been well under capacity in Compton Family Ice Arena.

But it’s time to stop sleeping on the Irish.

With last year’s Frozen Four experience under its belt and new faces stepping into big shoes, there’s no reason why this year can’t be the year for Notre Dame to finally capture that elusive title.