Notre Dame hosts Providence in Hockey East quarterfinals
Zach Klonsinski | Thursday, March 9, 2017
After a strong second half of the regular season that earned it a first-round bye in the Hockey East playoffs, Notre Dame readies to host one of the hottest teams in the country for a best-of-three series at Compton Family Ice Arena with a trip to Boston and the conference’s championship weekend on the line.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it also describes the equivalent of this weekend last season.
This year, No. 4 seed Notre Dame hosts fifth-seeded Providence in the conference quarterfinals at Compton. The Irish have played well of late, finishing the season by winning five of their last seven games and falling just a point shy of a tie for first in the regular season standings.
Last year, third-seeded Notre Dame welcomed No. 6 seed Northeastern during the Hockey East quarterfinals. Despite the Irish putting together a 13-1-3 mark from Thanksgiving 2015 to mid-February 2016, that series went poorly.
Notre Dame was swept out of the Hockey East tournament after just two games, falling to the Huskies, 3-1 and 6-4.
Sophomore defenseman Dennis Gilbert on Tuesday judiciously described it as the Irish having their “butts kicked.”
To be fair, before arriving at Compton, Northeastern had won nine consecutive games and 15 of their last 17. After beating Notre Dame, the Huskies continued their run to a Hockey East championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
That didn’t make it any easier for the Irish to swallow.
“It really angered a lot of guys, what happened with Northeastern,” junior forward Jake Evans said. “We went into it thinking we were the higher seed, we had this, and that still sticks with a lot of guys.
“ … In the snap of a finger, we were out of the [Hockey East] playoffs, and we had to wait two more weeks just to play one game. It sucked watching the Hockey East championship on TV, and we wanted to be there.”
“The actual games are out of everyone’s mind, but the feeling stuck with us,” Gilbert added.
Irish head coach Jeff Jackson described Northeastern as a “buzz saw” last season. This time around, No. 13 Notre Dame (19-10-5, 12-6-4 Hockey East) isn’t facing much less in No. 11 Providence (22-9-5, 12-7-3).
The Friars are winners of 14 of their last 17, including four straight wins over Massachusetts — two at the end of the regular season and two more to sweep the Minutemen in the first round of Hockey East play.
This time around though, the Irish have a feather in their cap: they represent two of the Friars’ three non-victories over that stretch.
Providence visited Notre Dame just three weekends ago, Feb. 17 and 18. Notre Dame won the first matchup, 4-1, and overcame three separate one-goal deficits to earn a point with a 3-3 tie the following night.
The Irish aren’t taking the rematch lightly, though.
“They probably figured out how they have to play to beat us, and, on the other side of it, is we probably have a better idea of how they’re going to pressure us in the offensive zone and through the neutral zone with their forecheck in the neutral zone,” Jackson said.
“I don’t see anything major,” Evans said when asked if the team found any weaknesses in the Friars from that weekend. “We just realized how tough it’s going to be and how simple and hard we’re going to have to play to take out these guys.”
While the winner of this best-of-three series heads to Boston next weekend for the Hockey East’s single-elimination semifinals and finals, there’s much more on the line for both these teams this weekend. Notre Dame currently sits tied for 13th in the Pairwise rankings, which are used to determine what teams make the 16-team NCAA tournament field. Providence is currently tied for 11th. With at least one team likely to steal a bid by winning their conference tournament, surviving this weekend could also secure the winning’s team’s chance to play for a national championship.
“This time of the year, you’re always playing with that on your shoulders,” Jackson said. “Your season’s on the line almost every game you play once you get to the playoffs. College hockey’s not a best-of-seven series.”
“We’ve earned a first-round bye, we’ve earned home ice in the second round, so it’s in our hands again to go out and compete and earn Boston Garden,” Gilbert said. “As far as the NCAAs go, this weekend’s the most important thing right now.”
Puck drop for Game 1 at Compton Family Ice Arena is Friday at 7:35 p.m. while Game 2 gets underway at 7:05 p.m. Saturday. If necessary, the decisive Game 3 will begin at 7:05 p.m. Sunday evening.