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Hockey

No. 4 Notre Dame heads into ranked road matchup with No. 12 Wisconsin

| Thursday, December 7, 2017

No. 4 Notre Dame will head to Madison, Wisconsin, this weekend to take on the No. 12 Badgers at the Kohl Center. The teams will meet for the first time since 2007, when Wisconsin defeated Notre Dame 4-1.

The Irish (14-3-1, 8-0-0 Big Ten) head into their final series of the calendar year with an 11-game winning streak, not only the longest active streak in the country, but also the longest streak in the program’s Division I history. Nevertheless, head coach Jeff Jackson and his squad are very aware of the various areas of improvement which still need to be addressed.

Ann Curtis | The Observer

Irish captain Jake Evans skates up the ice during Notre Dame’s 5-3 win over Penn State on Nov. 11 in Compton Family Ice Arena

“I addressed it with our guys before the game on Saturday. We can’t be focused on how many games we’ve won in a row,” Jackson said. “We have to understand that there are still parts of our game that have to get better. Possession game has to improve, our power-play has to improve. It’s not like we are on all cylinders right now. We’re relying a lot on our defense and our goaltender, and when push comes to shove, we’re not going to win all the time with that. It’ll help us win, no question. But we need to possess the puck more.

”It all starts on our own end. I thought we were much better coming out of our own end on Saturday [against Michigan State]. I addressed it with them, and they had a little response on Saturday, but we still only scored one goal. I think we have to start seeing a little bit more puck possession.”

But the Irish still have a lot of be proud of this season — as of now, they sit atop the Big Ten and at No. 4 in the nation. Senior captain Jake Evans currently leads the nation in scoring and assists, with 28 points on seven goals and 21 assists. Senior defenseman Jordan Gross, leading the strong defensive corps of the Irish, is tied for second in scoring among defensemen nationally. Sophomore goaltender Cale Morris, who has played masterfully over the course of the season, ranks first in the country in save percentage (.955), is tied for first in wins (13) and was awarded the HCA Player of the Month award on Wednesday after posting a perfect 8-0-0 record in November. With all of that in mind, Jackson said he was proud of the sophomore’s excellence thus far.

“He’s in the zone, and he’s making the game look easy,” Jackson said. “And that’s a trait that I didn’t see in junior hockey. He reminds me of Cal Peterson, in his voice and in his confidence right now. You see it in his positioning, you see it in his rebound control. And, frankly he’s got a pretty good defense in front of him, which is helping, because the few times a game where he does give up a rebound, he’s got a good defensive corps that’s doing a great job. So, I think that’s giving him confidence, but he’s very calm out there.

“The one thing I’m surprised by, more than anything, is his willingness to handle the puck, which I didn’t see a lot of in junior hockey. … I can’t say how happy I am for him, because last year he paid his dues. He sat behind Cal Peterson, and now he’s getting rewarded for that.”

But the strong Irish face quite a difficult test this weekend in the Badgers (10-7-2, 4-3-1), who sit 12th in the nation. Notre Dame will also face this test on the road, it’s second straight road series.

“This will be our biggest challenge on the road, for sure,” Jackson said. “This is a really talented hockey team that we’re playing this weekend. Ohio State was a good test, obviously, but this will be the biggest test for us on the road by far. And it’s on the Olympic sheet, so fast team, bigger ice — that’s going to definitely change things a little bit.”

However, the Irish have an experienced team this year with seven seniors, many of whom have taken considerable leadership positions on the team. Jackson is hopeful these leaders will help the rest of the team remain composed in the high-intensity environment the team will experience this weekend, as the team will need to find a way to get it done on the big stage.

“We have a more experienced team this year than we have had,” Jackson said. “Now, the one thing that last year’s team dealt with was playing in the big venues, in the big environment. Frankly, that’s going to happen this weekend. When we play at Wisconsin, it’s going to be a big venue environment. We’re intentionally going to play Wisconsin at the United Center to get that off of our backs later in the season. When we go to Minnesota, or Penn State, those are intimidating venues. We have got to find a way to perform in those types of situations.”

Having achieved so much already this season, the Irish are playing with a target on their backs, and Jackson said he and his the squad have not forgot that with the start to the year they’ve had.

“People love to hate Notre Dame, and they want to beat Notre Dame, and the fact that we’re doing well makes it even more magnified,” Jackson said. “But I think we’re somewhat accustomed to having a target on our back. That’s where we get everybody’s game. But some nights, we’re not ready for that.

“The second half is going to be much more challenging. I don’t even want to think about it right now, having to go back to Penn State or back to Minnesota. But that’s what this team is going to have to be prepared for. … We’re in a great place right now, but we just have to continue to be better.”

And despite the early success, the Irish remain focused on preparing for the end of the season and the playoffs. Jackson emphasized the need for growth in order to be prepared later on in the season.

“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve done as well as we have,” Jackson said. “There have been nights that I haven’t felt great about, but we won. You try to keep that away from your team because you want to be positive, you want to encourage them. They’re doing great as far as the record goes, but I’m one of those guys who wants more. I want us to be prepared for the end of the season.

“In order for us to be a great team, we’re going to have to possess the puck more, we’re going to have to have a better power play and we’re going to have to be more consistent on face offs — that’s always been a strength of ours, but in the last three or four weeks, we’ve dropped off for whatever reason. There’s a lot of room for growth from this team, and going into the second half, there are going to be definite areas that we want to make growth and improvement in.”

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