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Notre Dame prepares to take on Penn State

| Thursday, February 1, 2018

Notre Dame will head to University Park this weekend to take on Penn State.

After splitting their last series with Minnesota on the road, the Irish (25-5-1, 14-2-0 Big Ten) come into their next road series ranked No. 2 in the nation and atop the Big Ten standings.

Irish senior forward Jake Evans looks down the rink during Notre Dame’s 1-0 victory over Penn State on Nov. 11.

The Irish are entering the homestretch of the season as February begins, and although the Irish find themselves in a good spot, head coach Jeff Jackson and his team are conscious of the high intensity nature of February hockey in the Big Ten.

“First of all, the second part of the season is always harder because everybody is jockeying for position,” Jackson said. “We’re starting to see teams elevate, teams like Wisconsin — their game elevates this time of year because I think the Big Ten has got some quality teams in it. We were very fortunate in the first half to have the success we did against those quality teams. Now it’s gotten tougher. … You’ve got to be prepared to play — it’s going to be a challenge the rest of the way. But that’s good for us going into the playoffs.”

Senior captain and forward Jake Evans emphasized the importance of grinding out the closing stretch of the season.

“I think the beginning of the year is just a lot of excitement, and then once you come back for the second half, there is still a little bit of excitement, but it starts to get into the grind, where you’re grinding every game,” Evans said. “ … Just looking at the standings, you want to finish as high as you can, and just looking at the national rankings, too, a lot of teams are fighting for their lives and fighting for positioning.”

Nevertheless, Jackson said he appreciates the challenges the Big Ten offers to his squad, and the team believes those challenges will better prepare them for obstacles to come in the NCAA tournament.

“Hockey East was a great conference, too, and last year that conference was pretty tough. So, there are a lot of similarities,” he said. “The biggest difference between the two conferences is that, with only seven teams, there are no bottom dwellers. And in a conference where you have 12 teams, there are usually two or three teams that you can kind of beat up on.”

Thankfully for the Irish, their power-play unit, which has struggled as of late, appeared to get back on track in last weekend’s series. Jackson said he saw this resurgence as positive sign.

“We reunited that unit for last weekend, and even in practice early this week, they were buzzing the puck around,” he said. “They look really good, so hopefully we’ve got the right combination. This is the same unit that we had earlier in the year, but we switched the point man around, and that seemed to do the trick. It made it a lot more of a threat. If we can get a power-play goal every game, that certainly helps us.”

Another highlight from the weekend was junior forward Andrew Oglevie’s season-high three assists on Saturday night against Minnesota, which produced crucial scoring opportunities for the Irish. With sophomore forward Cal Burke sustaining an injury, Oglevie’s production on the ice will be as important as ever, Jackson said.

“We need him to be a productive player, whether that’s getting assists or goals,” he said. “We lost Cal Burke on Saturday, so Jack Jenkins filled in really well — he complimented that line. [Andrew Oglevie] is an offensive catalyst — he can make plays, he uses his feet effectively, and he’s not just a good offensive player. He does a good job on our penalty kill, he’s responsible in his own end.”

Although the Nittany Lions (13-11-14, 6-8-4 Big Ten) have lost four of their last five matchups, Jackson said he expects to face a tough road test this weekend.

“They’re going to come out like gangbusters — they usually do in their building,” he said. “In some ways, they’ve created one of the toughest game environments in the country. It’s right up there in the top-five environments from a fan perspective. They’ve got a great student section.”

The puck drops against the Nittany Lions at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena.

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