Editor’s Note: This story was originally written for The Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper.
The word “playoff” was tossed around before, during and after No. 15 Notre Dame’s series with No. 9 Providence this weekend.
Entering the weekend, just one point separated the Irish (18-9-5, 11-5-4 Hockey East) and Friars (18-9-5, 10-7-3) in the Hockey East standings, but Notre Dame pulled away for a 4-1 victory Friday and overcame three one-goal deficits Saturday as the teams skated to a 3-3 tie.
“It was like a playoff game,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said after Notre Dame’s win Friday. “There wasn’t much space for either team.”
“This is basically playoff hockey now,” Irish junior forward Anders Bjork said Friday, echoing his coach. “We’ve got to play desperate, do-or-die, because that’s basically how we’re going to have to play the rest of the season.”
“That’s as close to playoff hockey as you’re going to get,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said after Saturday’s game. “ … Their environment was terrific this weekend, maybe the best we’ve played in all year.”
Youth powered the Irish to the win Friday as freshman forward Cal Burke broke a 1-1 tie just 59 seconds into the third period with his third goal of the season. Burke won an offensive zone draw and drove straight to the front of the net in time to pounce on a rebound off a shot by classmate defenseman Tory Dello.
“The young guys are growing up,” Jackson said. “[The freshmen] are basically sophomores now.”
“Everyone’s said all year we’re a young team, we’re immature,” Bjork said. “We’ve finally learned how to take that step and learn how to play against good teams and win. … It’s really encouraging to see how well the guys have stepped up.”
Sophomore forward Jack Jenkins gave Notre Dame the lead in the first period, snapping home his fifth of the season on an odd-man rush.
Bjork netted a pair in a two-minute span late in the third period to give Notre Dame some breathing room.
Bjork’s first goal came on a shorthanded break. He hit the crossbar, but the puck ricocheted into the air in front of the net. A crashing Providence defender knocked his goaltender, and the puck, across the goal line.
“I was a little pissed off, but then guys started skating over to me and I saw a scrum in front of the net,” Bjork said of his goal, which he didn’t realize went in until he moved close to the blue line. “Thanks to the hockey gods, I guess.”
Notre Dame turned to Bjork and its other cornerstones Saturday night to rally from 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 deficits; the top forward line of Bjork, junior Jake Evans and freshman Cam Morrison was on the ice for all three Irish goals.
“They’re either going to help us win it or they’re going to help us lose it every night,” Jackson said of his top line. “Not only do they have to be productive offensively, but they get matched up against other teams’ top lines, and they have to fight through that and they have to defend.”
Evans redirected a pass into the Friars net with 25 seconds left in the second period to tie the game, 2-2, and Morrison made it 3-3 when he deflected another Dello shot off the far post midway through the third period.
Sophomore defenseman Bobby Nardella scored the first Irish goal, picking his spot on a first-period power play.
“[Providence is] one of the top teams in the country, and one of the hottest right now, so getting three points out of that is pretty big,” Evans said after Saturday’s tie. “Proud of the team — we showed a lot of resilience today.”
Junior netminder Cal Petersen also made a few highlight-reel saves in the third period Saturday to keep Notre Dame in the game. Overall Petersen turned away 70 of the 74 shots (.946 save percentage) he faced on the weekend while recording his 50th career victory Friday.
“We just couldn’t extend our lead,” Leaman said. “We had two or three really good looks. [Petersen] came up with some really good saves.”
Notre Dame visits Boston University next weekend with playoff seeding and a first-round bye in the Hockey East playoffs on the line. The Irish clinch a bye with a single point, but they can climb as high as first or fall as low as fifth depending on results around the league.
“We control our own destiny [in Hockey East],” Jackson said. “We’re going to have to play probably the most talented team in college hockey next week. It’s going to be a big challenge, especially in their building.”
Puck drop Friday is at 6:05 p.m. while action at Agganis Arena gets underway at 7:05 p.m. the following evening in Boston.