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Hockey

Irish face crucial weekend series against Vermont

| Friday, February 3, 2017

With perhaps the season on the line, No. 17 Notre Dame is set to face No. 12 Vermont at home this weekend. The two teams are third and fourth in Hockey East, with the Catamounts (16-8-2, 8-5-1) ahead by only one point, and a sweep for the Irish (14-9-3, 7-5-2) would go a long way in shoring up their NCAA tournament chances.

In last weekend’s loss to Boston College, the Irish struggled to handle the speed of the Eagles in transition. While the Irish have gotten better at limiting those opportunities, head coach Jeff Jackson is hoping that the problems last weekend were just a hiccup, and that the Irish can stay focused this weekend.

Irish junior goalie Cal Peterson stretches out to make a save during Notre Dame's 2-2 tie with New Hampshire on Jan. 20. Kathleen Donahue | The Observer

Irish junior goalie Cal Peterson stretches out to make a save during Notre Dame’s 2-2 tie with New Hampshire on Jan. 20.

“We have to. We are playing a team in the same caliber [of Boston College], maybe a different style, but very similar team as far as offensively,” Jackson said. “Vermont is as good as there is in our conference right now, and we’re going to have to be really smart with the puck. We had been doing a really good job of minimizing odd-man rush situations, but against BC I don’t know if we got caught up in the moment with the energy in the building and the speed of the game, because that’s where we got ourselves into trouble. So by controlling the puck, you control the tempo, and our team has been inconsistent with that for a lot of this year. But I thought we had settled down quite a bit over the last month and avoided some of those turnovers, and they showed back up, like I said maybe it was just the environment, because it was a good game.”

Although not picked to do well in Hockey East this year, Vermont has surprised a lot of people. In October, the program was put on probation and both co-captains were suspended by the University amid allegations of hazing, but the team has rallied to put up a strong season so far.

“They’re always a tough team to play against,” Jackson said. “The incident at the beginning of the year maybe galvanized them, because they weren’t picked to be in the top four of the league, but they’ve certainly earned that at this point. They have good offensive depth, they get scoring from all four lines. … They’re very aggressive in the offensive zone, and then their defensemen playing aggressively in the offensive zone, they’re hard to play against. You have to defend well in your end, obviously you have to come out of your own end with speed and possession, but there’s going to be times where you have to weather their storm, because of the way they cycle the puck.”

For Notre Dame and Jackson, the game plan is simple.

“You just have to defend well. You’ve got to make sure, especially your point coverage guys, they have to have their heads on a swivel,” he said. “They have to be always aware where their defensemen are. Sometimes they’ll be right in behind them, sometimes they’ll be scissoring down or cycling down into the play. They’ve got good forwards that do a good job of protecting the puck and cutting back and cycling down low so it’s a five-man unit that they cycle with. … They do an extremely good job in the [offensive] zone.”

With only three more series before the postseason, and Notre Dame right on the cusp of the 16-team cutoff for the NCAA tournament, the series with Vermont is potentially crucial. But Jackson and the team are ready for the challenge, and the added benefit of being at home should be a bonus.

“As far as our standing and that, they’re critical. They’re crucial games,” he said. “At this point all the games are, for the rest of the way. But we certainly have to take advantage of being at home with our crowd and last change. I think that we have to really try to play a real smart game at this point because when we’re playing smart with the puck, we’re a much better team. We’re fast, we have a good offensive game ourselves, but we have to do a good job with the puck.”

Irish junior forward Anders Bjork was selected as one of five finalists for the Hockey Humanitarian Award, given to a player whose excellence in community service and citizenship is unparalleled. For Jackson, however, Bjork’s nomination is not a surprise.

“He does it quietly. Some of the things he does, he reaches out and does them on his own. He’s an impressive young man,” Jackson said. “I give his mom and dad a lot of credit because obviously for him to take on those kind of things himself is impressive. Willing to give back to the community and especially dealing with young kids and trying to help show them the way. What he’s done is incredible considering the fact that a kid of his ability level, you don’t always get that with kids that are really good players, great players.”

The games against Vermont are slated for Friday night at 7:35 p.m. and Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in Compton Family Ice Arena.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby is a junior PLS/Economics double major from Smithtown, New York.

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