Irish prep to host Big Ten tournament
Tobias Hoonhout | Thursday, March 8, 2018
After clinching the Big Ten regular-season championship earlier in the season, the Irish earned an automatic trip to the semifinals of the postseason tournament. After a week and a half off, the Irish will retake the ice Saturday to take on Penn State.
For Irish head coach Jeff Jackson, the extra time off has been a welcome reset for his team.
“It might’ve helped us, just because I don’t think we were playing our best hockey,” he said. “So maybe it will help us going into the playoffs, getting a little bit of a breather. This is a really tough time academically, the two weeks prior to midterm exams, they get loaded up. So we’ve had a couple of additional off days, but the days that we have practiced have been real competitive and intentional. We try and keep our competitive edge and then work on some of the details in our game.”
After going on their historic 16-game winning streak and clinching the Big Ten regular season title in their inaugural season, the Irish (23-9-2, 17-6-1 Big Ten) sputtered to the finish line, only winning one of their final five games, including a 4-3 loss to Michigan State on senior night. For Jackson, re-finding the winning edge starts Saturday.
“Well, if we don’t, it’ll be a short-lived playoff,” he said. “I think that they’ve been really good in practice, they’ve been engaged and working hard, competing hard. The big thing for us is to get back to our responsible game with the puck. If anything, I think that was the one area that we got away from after we clinched the regular-season championship. We need to value the puck more, especially against a team like Penn State, we have to expect 40 or 50 shots, that’s just the way they play.
“ … When you’re playing single games everything matters, every detail matters — it could be a face-off, it could be a penalty, it could be any situation — momentum and things like that all come into play. The biggest thing for me is we’re going to have to play 60 minutes, and during that stretch after we won the regular season, I thought we were down to 40 minutes a night, even 20 minutes a night. We have to get back to playing 60-minute hockey games, that’s probably the most important thing. Especially the first period on Saturday night, when you’re coming off of a one-week break, when the other team has had to go to war to continue their season, that’s the biggest challenge you always deal with after a bye week.”
Penn State (18-13-5, 9-10-5) managed to sweep Minnesota in the first round of the tournament to advance to play the Irish. While Notre Dame is undefeated in four games against the Nittany Lions this season, Jackson still believes Penn State poses a serious challenge.
“Even in the games we won, we had to battle to win them,” he said. “There were no easy nights playing against them. We were down 2-0 the last Friday game we played at Penn State, and we were up 2-0 the Friday game we played at Penn State, and then we were up 2-0 on Saturday, and they don’t quit playing. They come after you. They play a high puck-pressure game, probably more so than any team in college hockey. They pressure the puck extremely well, they force you to make mistakes and the other part of it is that when they force you to make a mistake they’ve got players that can capitalize.
“They’ve got one of the best offensive teams in the country, probably top-two or three teams in the country offensively. But with that puck pressure sometimes, if you do things with the puck then maybe you’re going to get opportunities, because they’re putting so much pressure on you sometimes you can get up the ice on an odd-man rush or get scoring chances as a result of bypassing their pressure.”
While the Irish are certainly a lock for this year’s NCAA tournament field, Jackson is still focused on the present challenge.
“The one thing about playing in this conference is it seems like every night you’re playing a top-15 team, and we will be again this weekend,” he said. “Hopefully that helps prepare you when you do get to the NCAA tournament, but our focal point right now has got to be Saturday night, we can’t look at anything else. We have an opportunity to win another playoff championship, but in order for that to happen we have to take care of business on Saturday, and all the success that we had during the mid-part of the season, that gave us the opportunity to finish in first and have a bye week and play at home, and now that we’ve earned that we have to earn the next opportunity, which is to play a week from Saturday, and that can only happen if we take care of business this Saturday.”
The puck is set to drop Saturday at 5:30 p.m. at Compton Family Ice Arena.