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ND to begin Big Ten play against Ohio State

| Thursday, November 1, 2018

Coming off a sobering home sweep at the hands of No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth in a rematch of last year’s national championship, No. 5 Notre Dame now faces another tough test as the Irish (3-2-1) open conference play: No. 7 Ohio State, who pushed the Irish to overtime in the Big Ten tournament championship game.

Kendra Osinski | The Observer
Irish freshman forward Alex Steeves controls the puck behind the opponent’s net during Notre Dame’s 3-1 loss to Minnesota Duluth on Saturday at Compton Family Ice Arena.

Notre Dame went on a historic run last season in its first year in the Big Ten, including a program-record 16-game win streak that saw the Irish capture both the regular season and tournament crowns. But for Irish head coach Jeff Jackson, this time around, the Buckeyes (3-2-1) are just the beginning of the gauntlet.

“It’s a conference series obviously, but it’s not going to be much different from the Duluth series. You’re talking about the team that was picked to be first in the conference, they certainly deserve that, based on the returning team they have, it’s very close to the exact team they had when we played them here last year for the championship,” Jackson said of the Buckeyes. “They’re an experienced team and they have a lot of talent, and at this point — I said it’s a work in progress — but it’s all about us right now. It’s about us getting better in certain parts of our game, I talked to our guys today about the importance of improving on specific aspects of our game that we have to focus on over the next couple months.”

The Big Ten currently has six teams ranked in the top 20, and for Jackson, the chances of Notre Dame repeating as conference champions will certainly be a tall order.

“We probably still have a target on our back, and probably even bigger one since we won the league last year, but I think that the conference as a whole — I mean you look at Michigan State knocking off Cornell last weekend — I don’t think there’s a weak link in our conference, and we’re going to beat each other up for the next three months,” Jackson said. “There’s a lot of good teams in the Big Ten, and anybody could potentially win the league and anybody could finish in last place, and maybe a differential of half a dozen points, by the end of the year.”

Most teams in the conference seem to have improved over the offseason, Jackson said.

“It’ll be interesting to see how the conference goes now that we’re starting conference play,” he said. “I think that Minnesota is going to be much improved, Wisconsin is young but improved, Michigan State’s improved, Penn State’s an experienced team — they’re almost like Ohio State and Minnesota is to some degree, too, they had a little bit of an off year last year, if you can call it that for them. But I think everyone in the conference, and Michigan is going to be a high-tempo team, explosive team. So I couldn’t predict what’s going to happen over the next three months in the Big Ten, I think it’s going to be extremely interesting.”

While Notre Dame started the season brightly, blanking No. 3 Providence to win the Ice Breaker Championship 3-0 on Oct. 13, before sweeping Omaha on the road with a combined score of 12-3, the Irish hit a road block at home against the Bulldogs (6-1-1), particularly struggling to handle the speed and pressure Duluth exhibited. Jackson said Notre Dame still has a number of kinks in its game to iron out before the Irish can consistently produce.

“It’s not going to change overnight, it takes time to develop specific fundamental skills,” he said. “We need to get better with our defensive sticks, which was one of our fortes last year, we need to do a better job of protecting the puck and being strong over the puck and making strong plays with the puck, but we need to focus on these things and continue to pound them in our guys’ heads.”

Just because one part of the game was a strong point for last year’s team does not mean it will carry over to the ice this year, Jackson said.

“One of the crazy things for me is that every year, even though you have returning guys, it’s like you almost start over again, and it’s like retraining them,” he said. “They go away for four months in the offseason and they play summer hockey — call it shinny — and it’s all fun and stuff, but they get away from all of those details that you learn throughout the year, and it’s like relearning to ride the bike at some points. … Until we clean that up, we’re going to struggle against good teams until we clean up the parts of the game that we need to clean up, and maybe that’ll happen.”

Jackson is particularly looking for his team to improve in terms of keeping up with fast-paced teams, he said.

“They surprised me in how they played against Providence the second game of the season after playing high-risk hockey the night before. There’s a lot of factors that I wonder about the Duluth weekend,” Jackson said. “First of all, they’re an extremely fast and very good hockey team, and they’re experienced, they returned a lot of guys. So, I thought they broke us down because of their speed and because of the pressure, they pressure the puck as well as any team in the country, and we’ll see more of that against Ohio State this weekend. We just have to keep working on things to break that pressure, so we can make plays and score goals, and that’ll be the challenge.”

A particular facet that the Irish have yet to consistently produce results in is the power play, where the Irish went 0-for-6 against the Bulldogs in last Saturday’s 3-1 loss. Jackson said working on special teams is just as much a mental battle as a physical one.

“That’s something that our guys have got to be able to make adjustments based on the pressure that the opposing team is applying. We did score one on Friday, but Saturday night, especially having a five on three, is extremely disappointing,” he said. “I think at that time Duluth was in our mind a little bit with the pressure that they applied, and I think that we didn’t fight through it. And that’s something that again, we have to get better at, just because we didn’t score on the first three, we can still go one-for-four, and it starts in practice. … I’m always reminding them, ‘Hey, the next power play is just as important as the first three,’ so we got to get in that mindset that we can go out and not automatically be frustrated before we get on the ice, just because of the previous power plays.”

Jackson also commented on the news released this week that Notre Dame will play its third-ever outdoor game this coming January when the Irish take on Michigan on Jan. 5. The matchup with the Wolverines will take place in Notre Dame Stadium, the first-ever outdoor game to be hosted by the program. Jackson said the team is “extremely excited and pleased” to get the opportunity to go “back to the roots of the game” in front of plenty of Notre Dame faithful.

“It’s something that’s been talked about ever since they put in the field turf in the stadium, and I know that [Notre Dame athletic director] Jack Swarbrick has always said that that’s something that we wanted to try and achieve. With the Winter Classic being at the Stadium it’s only natural that we get a chance to play in the Stadium,” he said. “It’s probably going to be a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing, certainly the first and maybe the last, who knows. But it will be a great experience for our guys, … so I’m hoping that all the Notre Dame alumni, football fans, everybody gets involved, comes and tailgates, and makes it a great experience.”

With three months before the game, Jackson said he hopes Notre Dame’s rival doesn’t end up with more representation at the matchup.

“Michigan is already pumping it out there as far as trying to get as many Michigan fans [as possible] into the stadium, and I don’t want to have more Michigan fans than Notre Dame fans in our own building,” he said.

The Irish will face-off against the Buckeyes this Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Compton Family Ice Arena.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

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