Irish sweep Air Force in seasoning opening series
The No. 8 Notre Dame hockey team hosted the Air Force Academy Falcons this weekend for the first time since 1992 to open up the 2019-2020 regular season. Coming off of a 4-2 victory against the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, the Irish were looking to continue their good start with a strong showing in the series.
The tilt between the two teams would start off relatively slow in the first period as both teams would struggle to connect on breakout passes and enter into the offensive zone. The Irish would soon find their groove however, playing fast and physical hockey that resulted in two quality looks in the first three minutes following the opening faceoff. With the increased pressure and zone time, the Irish would soon end up on the man advantage. Despite the power play, the Irish would struggle to generate high danger chances.
With 12:05 left in the first period, Air Force would jump to an early lead finding the back of the net with a goal against the run of play when senior forward Brady Tomlak was able to bury a puck past freshman goaltender Ryan Bischel that took an awkward bounce off of the end boards. Soon after the Irish would need to deploy their penalty killing unit after junior forward Matt Steeves took an interference penalty. With tight defensive play and several clearances, Notre Dame would have no trouble stopping the special teams unit of Air Force, giving up 0 shots on the job. The Falcons would strike again late in the opening frame when senior forward Matt Pulver cleaned up a rebound shot from freshman forward Blake Bride to give their team a 2-0 advantage that would hold going into the dressing room.
In the second period, both teams would play dump and chase hockey as the Falcons and the Irish continued to roll line after line in the first few minutes of play. After gritty work below the goal line, the Irish would soon find a hole through Falcons junior goalkeeper Zach LaRocque just six minutes into the period after Irish junior forward Colin Theisen redirected a shot from senior center Mike O’Leary to cut the Air Force lead to 2-1. Despite an advantage in possession, the Irish would need to call on their penalty killing unit again after junior forward Colin Theisen took an offensive zone penalty. The man advantage for the Falcons would be cut short however with an interference call that would result in 4 on 4 hockey for a short period and a near full Irish power play.
Notre Dame would waste no time finding quality chances with stellar puck movement and open shots. However, the Irish were not able to capitalize on their man-advantage opportunity. With 6:38 remaining in the second frame, a stretch pass from sophomore defenseman Nate Clurman would find the stick of sophomore center Michael Graham who would saucer a pass across the Air Force crease to sophomore forward Alex Steeves. Steeves would hit his mark and find twine, knotting the game up at 2 all. Momentum would swing heavy in favor of the Irish, with several more quality chances and shots on goal but the score would remain at 2-2 going into the third period.
In the final frame, Irish goaltender Ryan Bischel would look sharp, stopping several quick Air Force shots without a rebound given up, keeping the game at a draw. With crisp passing and a clean breakout, the Irish would teak the lead just over 5 minutes into the third period after senior forward Cam Morrison would pick up a rebound from Alex Steeves and find open space to tuck home the goal for a 3-2 advantage. Michael Graham would also pick up his second assist of the night on the goal.
Both teams would have a few more chances on the power play in the period, but each would fail to generate any goals. Notre Dame would finish 0 for 4 on the power play and Air Force would finish 0 for 3. An early move to pull goaltender Zach LaRocque for an extra man would prove to be costly, as the Irish would waste no time taking advantage. Senior forward and captain Cal Burke would send a shot the full length of the ice to put the Irish up 4-2 with a little over 2 minutes left in the game. Despite a last second goal from Falcons forward Matt Pulver, the Irish would win game one by the score of 4-3.
Irish head coach Jeff Jackson praised his team for their response in being behind two goals to start off the game.
“We started off a little slow again. You don’t want to be falling down two-zip every game,” Jackson said. “On a positive note we responded well to it. I thought we played well after that. They [Air Force] play a hard game and they’re a challenging team to play against. Probably good games for us as we move forward.”
Sophomore forward Alex Steeves credited the team’s ability of being able to come back in the game to the experienced gained from the last season.
“I think we’re a bit older than we were last year. Even the past two years this team has always been able to battle adversity really well and get back in games,” Steeves said. We just never really quit. We’re a very structured team and we’re pretty confident in our ability.”
After struggling somewhat in the first game, Jackson said he was proud of the way his team responded on Sunday.
“I usually try to keep my message post-game on Friday nights minimal and then I deal with them on Saturday,” Jackson said. “Saturday I told them that I think we can be better because we did give up odd-man rushes, we turned pucks over a little too often. I didn’t think we played poorly Friday night, they’re a hard team to play against, they definitely forced us to make mistakes. But we made adjustments and our guys, for the most part, executed on those adjustments just by the way they played.”
The Irish came out firing in the second match of the series. After a close call came just under a minute into the game as freshman goaltender Ryan Bischel was forced to save a shot from close range, Cam Morrison broke through for the Irish. Possession alternated back and forth until the senior forward slammed a Falcons player into the glass, then took the puck on a two-on-one break before putting it past Falcons junior goaltender Zach LaRocque to go up 1-0 with 17:00 left in the first. Jackson said it was important for the team to find an offensive rhythm early after struggling in the first game.
“That’s important. We’ve got to get off to better starts than we did in the exhibition game and then Friday night, so, getting the first goal certainly helps,” Jackson said.
The Irish would then have a number of opportunities with the puck crossing right in front of LaRocque, but it failed to bounce Notre Dame’s way. After an icing call in the tenth minute, the Falcons had an opportunity to score but couldn’t convert. Air Force would continue their attack on a power play as sophomore defenseman Nate Clurman was penalized for the Irish, but still the defense remained stout. An ill-timed substitution and turnover by Air Force led to another Irish breakaway, but Larocque managed to save it.
After a brief break, the Falcons would come right back and score on a slapshot to knot the game at 1-1 heading into the second period. A late-period offensive spurt by Air Force granted them a 10-8 advantage in shots on goal. Despite allowing the goal, Jackson was confident in the play of Bischel and the defense as a whole.
“The only goal they scored was a faceoff goal that Bischel probably had no chance on because it was redirected in front of him so, I was pleased with his performance, too, first time he’s played back-to-back in college hockey,” Jackson said. “But our team played really well in front of him, it’s not like he had to make spectacular saves, I don’t know if we gave up an odd-man rush… our guys played really solid.”
In the second stanza, the Irish took six seconds less to score than in the first. Junior defenseman Matt Hellickson scored on a powerplay off assists from senior forward Mike O’Leary and senior defenseman Tory Dello to take a 2-1 lead with 17:06 left in the second. The Irish had another great opportunity off of a spin move by junior forward Pierce Crawford right next to the goal, but the puck was batted away by LaRocque.
Yet again the Irish had a near miss as Hellickson fed the puck to junior forward Colin Theisen in the middle who missed left of the goal. The Irish would get another power play opportunity on a holding the stick penalty on Air Force, but the Falcons managed to kill that as well. Both teams would have opportunities as the period wound down, but the Irish maintained their one-point advantage heading into the third period while taking a 19-17 advantage in shots on goal. Jackson talked about what he told his team during the second intermission.
“Going into the third period I told them, ‘This is a chance to show your maturity as a team,’” Jackson said. “You want to simplify your game, you don’t want to turn pucks over, you don’t want to … give up odd-man rushes.’”
The Irish would heed his advice. Just 20 seconds into the third stanza, a fight broke out on the ice that saw three players penalized, two from Air Force and Dello for the Irish. Notre Dame immediately capitalized as Theisen scored on assists from O’Leary and sophomore defenseman Spencer Stastney with 19:25 to go in the period, giving the Irish some breathing room with a 3-1 lead. The Irish scored once more a couple of minutes later as O’Leary missed a shot left, recovered the rebound and passed to senior forward Cal Burke for the shot over LaRocque’s shoulder.
Still the Irish would not relent, as a Dello slap shot missed to the right but the rebound off the wall came right to Theisen who laid the puck in between the goalie and the upright. The Irish continued to outplay the Falcons for the remainder of the game, and if not for several near-miss chances throughout the remaining time, the score could have been worse. Jackson complimented the way his team continued to compete even after accruing a commanding lead.
“Frankly I was more impressed with our guys after we got the 5-1 lead. We didn’t start getting individualistic, which happens,” he said. “Teams in the past that I’ve had have gotten individualistic. When you get a big lead they’re often gonna want to get points or whatever. But our guys stayed the course which was really impressive to me because that doesn’t normally happen with teams I have but it’s a real positive sign.”
Sophomore forward Jake Pivonka put the exclamation point on the contest with a long goal with 00.9 seconds remaining in the contest to give the Irish a 6-1 win. Jackson said he takes it as a positive to come away from the series with two wins, especially with a big football rivalry game against USC in between the two contests.
“These were good games for us and Air Force pushed us right to the limit. They work as hard as any team in the country and tonight I thought we bypassed a lot of their pressure sooner, which I thought was a key thing for us to get out of our zone quicker, get through the neutral zone a little bit better, and then we made some nice plays in the offensive zone moving the puck sooner,” Jackson said. “All in all the guys made the adjustments that they needed to, but I was really pleased with their focus. I was a little nervous about them going into the football game [against USC] and the day off in between, but they must have handled it very well because they played well today.”