Jackson ready for team‘s preparation to pay off in Big Ten tournament opener against Michigan State
Tobias Hoonhout | Thursday, March 7, 2019
After clinching the second seed in the Big Ten tournament and home ice last weekend against Penn State, No. 16 Notre Dame will open the playoffs against seventh-seeded Michigan State in the quarterfinals. In four games against the Spartans (12-17-5, 8-12-4-2 Big Ten) this season, the Irish (18-13-3, 11-11-2) and head coach Jeff Jackson are undefeated.
For Jackson, Notre Dame’s late push to earn home-ice advantage for the conference tournament provides a number of perks.
“To me, the most important thing is having last change — that’s an advantage when you’re at home,” he said. “But the guys earned this opportunity, so hopefully we have good crowds, that certainly makes a difference. Frankly, it’s the convenience of playing at home — not having to travel — and like I said, last change is always an important part of having that home-ice advantage.”
After Ohio State wrapped up the regular season conference title, the race for the second seed in the Big Ten took the final weekend to decide, as the Irish managed to score a comeback victory over the Nittany Lions (19-13-2, 11-12-1) last Friday to clinch. But Notre Dame was unable to complete the sweep Saturday night, a factor Jackson attributed to a lack of offensive consistency.
“Special teams was a big factor [Saturday], and we just have to have the discipline in the third period not to take penalties,” he said. “The other part of it is we needed to get a good kill. We didn’t have a lot of power play opportunities, which might’ve helped us. But that’s the tale of our team a little bit this year, where we score five goals on Friday, then we come back and have a hard time scoring more than a couple on Saturday.”
With the playoffs and elimination hockey now around the corner, Jackson said his team — which has made back-to-back Frozen Fours — will need to be up to the challenge.
“Every game is your last game — you have to approach it, you have to embrace it, you can’t be afraid of it,” he said. “You’ve got to embrace it and attack the game and not play conservatively. Everything is elevated, everything is made bigger. Whether it’s goaltending, or special teams or faceoffs, every detail becomes bigger. Just being emotionally engaged and focused is probably the primary thing.”
While Jackson felt the Irish are steadily improving, he still pointed to offensive production as an opportunity for growth.
“Our special teams has been better here in the second half. I think [junior goaltender] Cale [Morris] has settled in and has been playing pretty well,” he said. “The only thing is, the nights when we get secondary scoring is when we’re peaking. … That’s the one thing that has been a little inconsistent for us this year. But I think our team has been playing well, and we haven’t always shown the results — hopefully in the playoffs we’re going to get the results.”
Against the Spartans, whom the Irish have a 3-0-1 record against this season, Jackson said Notre Dame will have its hands full containing Michigan State’s talented front line of junior Taro Hirose, sophomore Mitchell Lewandowski and junior Patrick Khodorenko, who have accounted for 121 of the team’s 265 points on the year.
“They’re a much improved team from what they were last year. I think they’ve solidified themselves in goal, which has made a big difference. But their top line is a huge factor — probably the top line in college hockey — and you have to be conscious when they’re on the ice, because they’re very talented and very instinctively strong,” Jackson said. “They play a hard game. They’re very well coached, they’ve got some good young defensemen, which has also elevated their team this year, so they’re going to give us all we can handle.
“Everything we played [against them] was a close game, the last time we played them we won in a shootout, so that won’t happen in the playoffs — we’ll have to continue on in overtime. So it’s going to be a challenging series. I don’t think there’s going to be an easy series in the Big Ten in the playoffs this year.”
The best-of-three series is set to begin on Friday night at Compton Family Ice Arena. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m.