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Notre Dame splits regular-season finale, locks up second seed for Big Ten Tournament

and | Monday, March 4, 2019

Notre Dame finished its regular season this past weekend after splitting games with Penn State in a 5-4 overtime victory Friday and a 3-2 defeat Saturday.

Friday night’s hockey action provided plenty of scoring. From the start of the first frame, both the Irish (18-13-3, 11-11-2 Big Ten) and Nittany Lions (19-13-2, 11-12-1 Big Ten) looked to set the pace early with clean zone entries and cross-crease passes. The Irish soon found success in the attacking zone with hard work along the boards and below the face-off dots, resulting in several quality looks on Penn State junior goaltender Peyton Jones. The Irish soon earned themselves a power play from their extended zone time. Despite stellar puck movement and high danger chances, the Irish came up empty-handed but had established momentum in their favor. Notre Dame eventually found the back of the net with just over six minutes remaining when freshman forward Alex Steeves found a trailing Jake Pivonka to set up a hard wrister that would have given the freshman his third goal on the season and a 1-0 advantage to the Irish, but the goal was overturned due to the Irish having too many men on the ice. Despite the early Irish onslaught, it was Penn State that drew blood first after a rebound clean up at the goal mouth by junior forward Denis Smirnov put his team up by one. The Nittany Lions carried their one-goal lead into the dressing room, evening up the shot totals and swinging momentum.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish freshman forward Graham Slaggert skates down the ice during Notre Dame’s 5-2 win over Michigan on Feb. 12.

Penn State didn’t waste any time in the second period, netting its second of the evening, just 13 seconds into the period after junior forward Liam Folkes found the back of the net. Notre Dame got a second look on the power play, nearly earning a goal but the right pad of Jones kept the Irish off the scoresheet. The Nitanny Lions earned another tally on the scoreboard when Smirnov cleaned up a rebound in front of Irish junior goalkeeper Cale Morris to score his second of the game and extend the advantage to three. Despite being dangerously close to a routing, the Irish soon responded with a much-needed goal on the power play, when junior defensemen Tory Dello fed sophomore Matt Hellickson for a wrist shot from the right circle, beating Jones on the top shelf and narrowing the deficit to two scores. Both teams traded chances back and forth, but it was the Nittany Lions that would restore their three-goal lead when junior forward Brandon Biro stuffed one five-hole past Morris. Notre Dame again responded quickly, after junior forward Cal Burke cleaned up a rebound from sophomore forward Colin Theisen in behind the net a little over 15 minutes into the period. Momentum shifted in favor of the Irish as they would end the frame only down two.

In the final period, both teams played fast, two-way hockey, exchanging chances at both ends of the ice, but it was the Irish that found their stride as junior forward Mike O’Leary buried his fourth goal of the season to cut the Penn State lead to just one early in the frame. The Irish kept the pressure up as sophomore forward Pierce Crawford connected with Steeves to knot the game up at four. Both teams switched to a more conservative play style for most of the remainder of the period, however the Irish earned a critical power-play chance with 52 seconds left in regulation after Penn State junior Nikita Pavlychev was handed a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct for head contact.

In the overtime period, the Irish would not squander their extended power play time, ending the game when O’Leary put home the puck in the crease to give the Irish the 5-4 victory and cap off the comeback.

Irish head coach Jeff Jackson praised his team for its ability to finish its come-from-behind effort in the win.

“I think it’s the first time in a while it’s happened. We’ve been resilient but we haven’t been able to get over the hump,” Jackson said. “Being down to Minnesota last week in the third period we had some great chances and couldn’t score. Tonight we came back we scored a couple key goals and gave us a chance to win it in overtime.”

With the win on Friday, the Irish were also able to clinch home-ice advantage for the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.

“Having the energy in the building is going to be really important,” Jackson said. “This is what you work for all year long. It gives us our best opportunity. It gives us last change which is important.”

The following night of hockey action included Senior Night festivities. Forwards Jack Jenkins, Dylan Malmquist, Joe Wegwert and defenseman Bobby Nardella were honored as the class of 2019. The quartet is the second class in program history to reach two NCAA Frozen Fours and currently have 88 wins.

Penn State looked to spoil the night for the Irish and got off to a quick start. Pavlychev got the Nittany Lions on the board within five minutes of action. The 6-foot-7 forward tucked the puck into the left edge of the net after solid playmaking by junior forward Blake Gober and sophomore forward Sam Sternschein.

Moments later, Penn State was penalized for having too many men on the ice, followed by another penalty second later for boarding after Malmquist took a big hit from Sternschein. The Irish had a four-on-six advantage on the ice and capitalized in no time. Nardella and Malmquist set up junior defenseman Andrew Peeke for the score 15:26 into the game. The assist became Nardella’s 100th career point, tying him for sixth-most by a Notre Dame defenseman.

Notre Dame took the last 11 shots of the first period, tying things up with Peeke’s goal. Nevertheless, Jackson did not like the early performance of his team.

“We didn’t start as well as we did last night. I thought we were a little sluggish for whatever reason,” Jackson said.

The second period began like the prior one. Penn State got off to a hot start scoring within the first two minutes. Irish freshman forward Graham Slaggert was called for interference giving the Nittany Lions their second power play of the night. Sophomore forward Alex Limoges scored to put Penn State back on top. One minute later, Morris made a mistake on a simple pass that Penn State intercepted and almost converted into a goal. The Nittany Lions found themselves on the verge of scoring again, with high intensity play that the Irish were just holding off.

About 14 minutes into the second period Notre Dame freshman forward Cam Burke was at the right place at the right time as he picked up a rebound and got an easy point-blank shot to tie things up once again. On the next play, Slaggert got a one on one against Jones. The play did not end with a large cheer however, instead being followed-up by a tone of disbelief as Jones saved the shot to deny a two-goal blitz.

The second period continued to be dominated by Penn State, who outshot Notre Dame 19-7 and forced Morris to have 18 saves. Nevertheless, the Irish held on to only concede one goal.

Jackson was not pleased with the intensity of his team adding that he was worried that the clinching of the second seed would discourage his players from trying harder.

“I always worry about these types of games. After we clinched second place in the conference, [I] tried to convince [my team] that there is more than that to play for,” Jackson said. “[Penn State’s] intensity was higher than ours and it showed up in a lot of key areas of the ice.”

The final 20 minutes of play started off following a similar pattern. Following an interference call on Dello, Penn State was given a power play early in the period. Sophomore forward Evan Barratt scored for the Nittany Lions with a shot to the right edge of the net.

Tensions started to escalate as Penn State’s sophomore defenseman Cole Hults and Irish junior forward Luke Novak got tangled up in a play. Officials stepped in to separate the two but halfway through the period, it seemed as though Notre Dame was feeling the pressure of the nearly 5,000 fans in attendance.

Thiesen got past a couple of defenders and got a good look on goal, but his shot was saved by Jones. A few moments later, Penn State’s Nate Sucese was penalized for hooking but Notre Dame could not capitalize and had their power play killed.

With about a minute and a half left in the game, the Irish were down by a goal at home on their last regular season game of the year. Out goes Morris, in goes an extra attacker. The Irish set up on the ice and looked for a hole to exploit but time and time again, the Nittany Lions’ defense refused to break. A shot by Cam Morrison? Saved by Jones. A shot by Nardella? Blocked by Hults. A shot by Cal Burke? Saved by Jones. Despite the last-minute efforts by the Irish, they only got three shots in the closing 90 seconds and failed to score. Jones’ 38 saves were valuable as the Irish outshot Penn State 16-7 in the closing period but failed to score.

The Nittany Lions made the postgame Senior Night celebrations a little less exciting. Jackson noted that Senior Night hasn‘t gone well for the Irish the past few seasons.

“It’s disappointing just because we have a reception upstairs for the seniors tonight, you’d like that to be a positive experience. I can’t even remember the last time we won a Senior Night,” Jackson said.

The Irish will now host Michigan State next weekend for the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten tournament in a best-of-three matchup. Jackson believes his team can be great but right now the only focus is beating the Spartans twice.

“There’s been points where we’ve shown we can be a great team,” he said. “We’ve had some great games. It’s just a matter of finding a way to be able to do it on a consistent basis.

“The biggest challenge for us is going to be getting through that [next] round. That’s all that we have to worry about right now because that’s the only thing in front of us.”

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