Irish aim to continue recent momentum against Spartans
Tobias Hoonhout | Friday, January 25, 2019
After dropping four of its first five games to start the second half of the season, No. 11 Notre Dame will look to continue a recent turnaround this coming weekend, as the Irish welcome conference rival Michigan State to South Bend. A sweep for Jeff Jackson’s team over the Spartans would push the Irish unbeaten run to four games as postseason play nears.
Notre Dame (13-8-2, 6-6-1-1 Big Ten) got back to its winning ways this past weekend in a road series against Wisconsin, which saw the teams play the second game of the series at the United Center in Chicago. A win and an overtime tie gave the Irish four points and overturned a dip in form that plagued the second-half start, a turnaround Jackson credited to a realigned emphasis on program culture.
“We had to have a conversation after the Minnesota series, [that] Saturday night game I thought that some of the things that are the strength of our team — the culture — got drifted away from, whether it had been building up or it just showed up in the second and third periods of that game,” he said. “For me, we wear that seven for a reason; there are seven components to our culture, and when we start getting away from those things, then we have potential issues. We actually met on that after the Minnesota weekend, had a serious sit-down meeting about it, and the guys responded.
“I thought that this past weekend at Wisconsin, we were much more engaged and positive with each other, and we showed some bounce-back in both games, the first game especially when we fell behind after we had a 2-0 lead — we fell behind, we came back; we fell behind again, we came back and then we won the game. Having that pushback is part of that, you can’t just assume you’re going to win if you score the first goal or if you don’t score the first goal, it’s a 60-minute hockey game. That’s something that we still need to be better at, is playing the full 60. We’re still not quite there yet, and I know that it will probably take a little more time.”
While Jackson attributed the recent struggles to team chemistry, part of the problem for Notre Dame has been injuries — the team has lost senior forward Joe Wegwerth for the season, and juniors Cal Burke and Cam Morrison remain out. Despite the adversity, Jackson applauded the way his team stepped up to the task.
“It was huge. You’re kind of going against the odds, in a way, because you’re playing without three good scorers,” he said. “But we can’t dwell on that, we’ve got other guys that are stepping up and filling those roles, and they did that last weekend, and it will be no different until we start getting some of them back … this weekend certainly those guys are going to have to elevate again.”
One of the key contributors who stepped up was freshman Michael Graham, who had four goals in the two games against the Badgers (8-10-4, 4-4-4-1), good enough to see him win conference first star of the week. Jackson said it was good to see the young forward seize his opportunity to shine.
“He was a guy who we had really high expectations for, when we recruited him out of high school. He left after high school and played junior hockey and that’s when the injuries started, … I think it took him some time, it took him the first couple months to get acclimated, having not played a lot, and he started showing some positive signs,” he said. “We saw some of that potential when we played out at [Nebraksa-Omaha]. We’ve seen it here and there, but not consistently.
“Last weekend I think it was the circumstances, being thrust upon to play a real important role on one of your top lines and your top power play, and he grabbed a hold of it and ran with it, and that’s a great sign for us of the future with him.”
Against the Spartans (9-12-3, 5-7-2-2), one of Notre Dame’s most historic opponents — the teams first met in 1926 — the Irish have had the recent advantage, winning five of six Big Ten games over the last two years. But this season, Michigan State boasts one of the top lines in all of college hockey, as junior Taro Hirose, sophomore Mitchell Lewandowski and junior Patrick Khodorenko have scored 36 of the team’s 72 goals this year. Jackson said that Notre Dame will have to be on its toes — particularly between the pipes — to contain such a feared unit.
“We need to get on track at home. We need to be more consistent at home, we’ve been really good on the road this year, and we have to find that same level of focus and intensity at home that we have on the road,” he said. “We’ve had spots — I thought we played well against Minnesota, especially the second night — but the big thing is that we have gotten really good goaltending on the road, and we need to make sure that’s the priority going into this weekend with Cale [Morris] and possibly [St. Cyr]. Like last weekend, Cale made some great saves when we really needed him to — he may have given up four goals the first night, but he made some really good saves in the process of that game.
“We may not score five goals this weekend, Michigan State is playing really well right now: watching them on film, this is the best I’ve seen them. They are playing with a lot of confidence, and that top line is scary good.”
The puck is set to drop at Compton Family Ice Arena on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m.