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Irish prepare for River Hawks

| Thursday, November 19, 2015

After two home weekends in a row, No. 16 Notre Dame will head back out on the road to take on No. 5 UMass Lowell in a pair of conference games.

For the Irish (5-2-3, 3-0-1 Hockey East), these two games against the conference-leading River Hawks (8-1-2, 4-0-2) will provide an early season benchmark that they can build off for the rest of the year, according to Irish head coach Jeff Jackson, especially since the River Hawks are riding a five-game winning streak.

“They’re a very structured team,” Jackson said about the River Hawks. “They play four lines, they change quickly so they out-shift you. They’re very disciplined in the way they play. They do a lot of things really well, and they’ve got ‘heavy’ players — that’s the new terminology nowadays. They’re strong over the puck, they’re strong physically, they get to the net hard. It’s like playing a pro team — that’s the way they play the game. Their system in the defensive zone and their transition game from it also make them tough.”

Much like some of their other rivalries that have come into focus in recent years, Notre Dame has played UMass Lowell consistently recently. A year ago, the Irish and the River Hawks played a total of five games, including three in the conference playoffs, with the River Hawks skating to a 3-1-1 record overall against the Irish.

“The reality is that we played them pretty tough last year in the playoffs; even the last game, which had a big score, we had some great chances in that game,” Jackson said.

Along with the system, Jackson said the reason the River Hawks have been such a strong opponent over the years is because of their play in goal. They are led by senior goaltender Kevin Boyle, who currently boasts a .957 save percentage and is fresh off his third shutout of the season.

“Their goaltender’s playing really well right now too, and that’s a big factor for them,” Jackson said. “When they were really good a few years ago in goal, and they were almost impossible to score against. That’s their system, but it’s also their goaltender, and it seems like they’re right back there again with [Boyle] in net.”

The Irish are off to hot start in Hockey East play as well, as they still have yet to lose a game and currently sit in third place in the conference.

Jackson placed the focus for his team on improving consistency and on retaining leads.

“We’ve been all over the place; we’ve had games where we generate a fair amount of offense, and we’ve had games where we’ve been kinda stymied,” Jackson said. “I think that, again, is just the inconsistency that comes from our youth in some ways. We have to get to the point where our guys play the same game every night.”

Jackson also discussed sophomore left wing Anders Bjork, who he thinks has sometimes been an example of the inconsistency that comes from youth.

“I think he’s been pressing,” Jackson said. “But he’s been pressing more because he’s trying to make the national junior team, which has hurt his penalty killing and his game without the puck. He cheats a little too much offensively, and then he gets caught. He’s such a skilled and great skater, he has the potential to be a great player. He just has to find that balance right now. Understanding that if he does things the right way then his skills and speed show up even more because the way he’s doing things right now, if he’s cheating or trying to do too much, then he’s forced to play defense all the time, and that’s not his game. We want him with the puck, not without it.”

Bjork and the Irish will continue their play in Hockey East with a pair of games against UMass Lowell at the Tsongas Center in Lowell, Massachusetts, on Friday and Saturday nights. They will then return home for the Shillelagh Tournament, which kicks off Nov. 27 with a game against No. 8 Harvard.

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