Notre Dame resumes conference play against Merrimack
Brett O'Connell | Friday, January 15, 2016
No. 13 Notre Dame returns home this weekend when it hosts Merrimack for a pair of Hockey East tilts at Compton Family Ice Arena.
The Irish (10-4-7, 6-1-2 Hockey East) are one of the hottest teams in college hockey: The team is riding an eight-game unbeaten streak (5-0-3) that stretches back to a 3-1 home victory over Western Michigan in the final game of the Shillelagh Tournament over Thanksgiving weekend. The win streak marks Notre Dame’s longest unbeaten stretch since the 2013-2014 season, when the team went 7-0-1 in February and March. The streak is currently tied for the longest active stretch without a loss in the NCAA with No. 1 North Dakota, which holds a perfect 8-0-0 record in the same stretch.
Sophomore goaltender Cal Petersen’s play has served a significant role in Notre Dame’s torrid pace. Currently second in the NCAA in shots faced, Petersen has posted a 1.61 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage during Notre Dame’s last eight games. Petersen lauded the play of his teammates Wednesday, saying the short holiday break has allowed his team to strive for another level of play.
“The whole team has really taken a step since the break,” Petersen said. “The break helped a ton with just resting us and getting us prepared for a solid showing in Denver, and it really showed [against Western Michigan]. We’ve set the bar for our standards a lot higher.”
Petersen also spoke of a certain excitement that accompanied the team in returning home to Compton Family Ice Arena but added the coaching staff has been encouraging the team to bring its away-game grit with it back to its home ice.
“It’s nice being home,” Petersen said. “One of the things we’ve been working on is having a bit more edge at home. On the road it’s easy to be really physical — sometimes it’s easier to fall back in complacency with the comfort we have around here.”
Irish head coach Jeff Jackson echoed his starting goaltender’s words regarding an increase in physical play — particularly when it came to recently returned sophomore left wing Anders Bjork. Bjork rejoined the team last week after having helped steer the U.S. World Junior Championship team to a bronze medal in Helsinki. Jackson spoke of the process of re-acclimating to the college game after having played abroad.
“The biggest adjustment is offensively not getting mesmerized by the additional ice, not playing the perimeter,” Coach Jackson said. “That’s the only thing [Bjork] has to be conscious of. We’ve been doing work trying to get him more to the dirty area.”
Physicality aside, Bjork’s offensive game has lost no ground since his return; the Irish winger has scored in his last two games and paces the team in both points and plus/minus during the team’s unbeaten streak.
Other contributing factors to the team’s recent success include an upswing in blocked shots, particularly among the team’s younger defensemen. Freshman blueliner Dennis Gilbert leads the team with 20 blocked shots on the season which Cal Petersen said has earned the freshman some deserved praise.
“[Gilbert] is doing a great job, as is all the defense,” Petersen said. “Blocking shots is a culture at Notre Dame, and the guys in the defensive corps really take it on themselves to help out a lot. That’s been huge for me. It’s limiting the amount of opportunities that get to the net, and for that I’m grateful. It’s awesome to see a freshman [like Gilbert] getting the recognition for blocking shots.”
The Irish look to sustain their unbeaten streak to nine as they host Merrimack this Friday at 7:40 p.m. at Compton Family Ice Arena.