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Frozen Four: Perception Isn’t Reality for Fighting Irish

Matt Dewkett/SB Nation

The University of Notre Dame hockey program is returning to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2011.

The Fighting Irish will be making the short trek to Chicago as hosts of the 2017 Frozen Four at the United Center after knocking off the top two seeds in the Northeast Region, Minnesota in the semifinals and UMass Lowell in the final.

It should come as no surprise that Jeff Jackson’s team is one of the last four teams standing in the 2016-17 college hockey season. After all, the venerable bench boss has now led two different programs to three Frozen Fours.

Jackson led Lake Superior State to three consecutive Frozen Four appearances, including winning the whole thing in 1992 and 1994. Jackson’s Irish made the Frozen Four in 2008 and 2011.

There is little doubt as to Jackson’s coaching prowess. He’s one of the great minds in college hockey, but what might be perhaps more impressive is his ability to adapt and recognize his team had to change its style of play in order to compete with the upper echelon.

Notre Dame is no longer just a team with a structured system to win low scoring hockey games as was the perception for years. The coaching staff made a concerted effort to get faster and more skilled in the recruiting process, and it has paid off.

As Jackson commented during a post-game interview after the BU series, he and assistants Paul Pooley and Andy Slaggert knew their team had to be better in transition and pick up the pace in order to win in Hockey East.

In Notre Dame’s four years in Hockey East, it went from 3.0 goals per game in its first two seasons to 3.11 last year and 3.26 this season.

This year’s Irish team is their most athletic, fastest and best-skating team yet. Top to bottom, both up front and on the blue line, the Irish play with great pace and can really move up and down the sheet.

It helps to have players like Anders Bjork, Jake Evans and Andrew Oglevie to put the puck in the back of the net, but the team’s ability to produce offense at a greater rate can largely be contributed to the defense.

Led by junior Jordan Gross’s 10 goals and 21 assists, three Irish defenders have more than 20 points, including big Dennis Gilbert, a Chicago Blackhawks prospect who is one of the best athletes on the team. Two other ND defensemen have double digit assist totals.

Over the last three seasons, Notre Dame has had at least one defenseman reach the 30-point plateau. The last time the Irish made the Frozen Four, their leading scorer on the blue line had just 18 points.

With an emphasis on speed and quickness, closing quickly and taking away time and space in modern era hockey, transition offense has become an increasingly important part of the game. Notre Dame’s staff has done a terrific job of recognizing this and addressing it on the roster.

The Irish are still a team that is held accountable in all three zones, but this year’s team seems to have more free reign to make plays individually and be creative compared to teams of a few years ago.

When Notre Dame takes on Denver in the second national semifinal Thursday night, don’t be surprised if the Irish defense gets involved in the offense.