Career transformation lands Gross a spot in Notre Dame’s big defensive situations

Jordan Gross, right, celebrates with Jake Evans during Notre Dame’s semifinal victory over Michigan (photo: Melissa Wade).

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson wouldn’t have thought about putting Jordan Gross on the ice against the other team’s top line when the defenseman was a freshman.

During Thursday night’s Frozen Four semifinal against Michigan, the bench boss did just that.

One might look at Gross’ production over his four years with the Irish and see him as a model of consistency. He had 28 points his freshman year, 31 his sophomore year, 32 last season and, after a two-assist game against Michigan, 30 this year.

What the numbers don’t show, however, is how the senior from Maple Grove, Minn., has transformed himself from an offensive defenseman to a legitimate two-way defender.

“Him and I had a serious conversation after his first year, just about the importance if he aspired to play at the next level, he was probably going to have to learn how to defend better,” Jackson said. “He made a conscious effort to do that. It’s rare for kids to sacrifice offense in order to become better defensively, but it’s allowed him to be more of a player that’s going to have a bigger impact on the game overall.”

That advice landed for Gross, who said he made strides during his sophomore year and felt comfortable on the defensive side by his third year on campus.

“I came in as a pure offensive defenseman, but I definitely consider myself more of a two-way guy now,” he said. “After my sophomore year I took [Jackson’s advice] to heart and really wanted to be a good defensive guy that they could rely on in the D zone.

“I was kind of sick and tired of not being on the ice in the big defensive situations, because growing up I was always in those. I wanted to prove to [Jackson] that I could be more two-dimensional.”

Becoming a two-way player hasn’t hurt the defenseman’s goal numbers. He scored 10 goals during both his junior and senior seasons, compared to seven during his freshman campaign and nine during his sophomore year.

“He still has the great ability to do things offensively, but now he can defend and that helps him even more offensively because he can transition from playing good defense,” Jackson said.

Gross gave a lot of credit for his numbers to his teammates.

“A lot of it is just playing with good players. Definitely the power play kind of helps that out — we’ve had a really good power play this year,” he said. “Playing with Bobby Nardella, [Andrew Oglevie], Jake Evans and Cam Morrison, they’re all really good players. It definitely makes it a lot easier. Just try and get them the puck and try and get shots through.”

The move that Jackson made Thursday night to shift Gross up against Michigan’s top forward line that had 51 combined goals coming into the game and had already lit the lamp twice didn’t go unnoticed by the player. It showed the confidence that Jackson has in the senior that was named an alternate captain this season.

“To be a captain on any team is a great honor, especially at Notre Dame and how many great guys we have in the locker room,” Gross said. “Just trying to be a good leader and helping the younger guys out through all these situations has been a big part of it.”

Thursday’s win avenged the loss that the Irish suffered to Denver in last year’s Frozen Four. Gross echoed what a lot of his teammates have said this week in that the team may have been satisfied just to be one of the final four teams playing last season, but not this year.

“The biggest thing we learned was kind of not be satisfied with being here,” he said. “Last year we had two huge upsets to get there, so I think it might have been just being a little satisfied. This year we definitely have the experience, so I think just kind of knowing how big of an event it is and not really being star struck by it has been a big factor.”

Now Notre Dame has the opportunity to capture its first NCAA title on Saturday at Xcel Energy Center, a rink that is a half-hour drive from Gross’ hometown.

Gross said he had more than 100 friends and family members in the stands Thursday night.

“It’s awesome. The last time I played here was in high school and I always wanted to come back here and play again,” he said. “Definitely playing for a national championship, I don’t even know how to say it, it’s just incredible.”