Irish poised to make run at Hockey East conference title
Tobias Hoonhout | Friday, February 17, 2017
In a battle of two hot teams, the No. 15 Irish host the 10th-ranked Providence in their final home series of the regular season.
With only four games to go till the postseason, Notre Dame (17-9-4, 10-5-3, Hockey East) sits third in the conference standings, one point ahead of the Friars (18-8-4, 10-6-2). While the Irish used an away series sweep against Maine last weekend to move into firm contention for a first-round bye in the conference tournament, Providence has won nine in a row to completely turn around their season.
“Providence is the hottest team in the country right now,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “But I think we’ve been playing well over the last three or four weeks as well, so it’s setting up to be a really nice series in my opinion, but it’s going to be a challenge. They’re a good team.”
Last weekend, with perhaps their postseason chances on the line, the Irish delivered two huge wins, a 3-2 win and then a 4-2 comeback victory, to solidify their season. For Jackson, the key to the recent success has been simply everyone doing their job.
“Hopefully it’s that we got our message across and they’re actually doing the things that are important for us to win, and it’s the little things,” he said. “I think we’ve been doing a better job of managing the puck, coming out of our zone and throughout the neutral zone, and that’s where it all starts. If we do a good job with the puck, then generally first of all we limit how many transitional chances the opponent has, and it also generates offense, so I think that’s been the biggest point.”
Another huge bonus for the team and the power play is the return of sophomore forward Bobby Nardella, who came back from injury last weekend against Maine. Nardella played limited minutes Friday night, but was back to his former self Saturday night, assisting on a power play goal from junior defenseman Jordan Gross. Jackson is glad to have him back, not only for his offense, but also for his defense.
“He was doing a pretty good job with that before he got hurt, so as time goes on we’ll rotate him in, but I think he’s back to full speed,” Jackson said. “He certainly makes a big impact on the power play, and that could be part of the reason for the last month our power play’s kind of been inconsistent. But he’s also a factor offensively, whether it’s on a breakout, whether it’s through the neutral zone — even in the offensive zone with his skill set, he can make plays from the blue line. The thing I’m most proud of though is that he became a better defender this year, he made a conscious effort — like Jordan Gross, the same thing, he made a conscious effort to become a better defender and it hasn’t really impacted his offensive abilities, but now we can trust him on the ice defensively. He’s not a high-risk player defensively, and that’s really important. He’s not the biggest guy in the world but he plays hard minutes, and he plays smart minutes, and defensively, that’s probably more important than the size and physicality in the position.”
Looking ahead to Providence, this weekend represents a couple of lasts for the Irish. Not only is it the last home series of the regular season, but on Saturday night, Notre Dame is honoring it’s two seniors on the team, forward Ben Ostlie and goalie Chad Katunar. While neither has had a major impact on the statistics this year, Jackson is very proud of them both, especially as leaders on the team.
“[Ben’s] always been a little bit of a role player, but the good thing for me is the fact that he’s playing his best hockey right now for us,” Jackson said. “He got back into the lineup on a regular basis because of injuries, and he’s taken advantage of it, and I’m happy for him. He’s playing more than just role-time minutes, he’s playing 12 to 15 minutes a game right now, playing on a regular line. He’s taken advantage of it, and I give him credit. Chad is another story, we had higher expectations for Chad and I’m sure he did too when he came in here, but he’s always kept his head straight, he’s been a phenomenal student in the classroom, he’s been a good teammate, and it’s a hard thing to do, and he hasn’t complained.”
For Jackson and the Irish, as long as they stick to the game plan they won’t be intimated by anyone, even arguably the hottest team in college hockey.
“We have to utilize our strengths and play our game,” Jackson said. “And like I said, no matter who we play against at this point, if we use our speed and have success managing the puck and make good puck decisions it doesn’t really matter who the opponent is or how well they’re playing, we just have to do what we do and do it better than they do.”
On Friday night, the game is slated for 7:35 p.m., and will include a ceremony during the second period intermission to honor the 2006-07 team, the first Notre Dame team to ever win a NCAA tournament game. Senior night will be Saturday at 7:05 p.m.