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Irish to take on Michigan State in critical Big Ten Series

| Friday, November 22, 2019

After splitting a pair of road conference games in Madison, Wisconsin, the No. 3 Notre Dame hockey team will travel to East Lansing, Michigan to take on another conference foe in Michigan State. This will be a massive series as the Irish (8-1-1, 4-1-1 B1G) sit within two points of Penn State for the conference lead, while Michigan State (5-5-0, 3-1-0 B1G) sits within two points of the Irish for second place, creating the potential for a huge swing the Big Ten standings.

The Irish will be facing off against a confident and disciplined Michigan State squad that took care of business in its latest conference series, sweeping rival Michigan by a combined seven goals while only allowing three. 

“They’re a better team than they’ve been in recent years because a lot of their young guys now are getting older,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “Those guys are the guys that are helping lead their team, not just their top line.”

The Irish will not only need to find a way to shut down the depth scoring of the Spartans, but also find a way to break down the strong defense and goaltender that Michigan State possesses.

“Their goalie [John] Lethemon has played really well here in the last month. To go into Penn State and shut out Penn State is not an easy thing to do,” Jackson said. “And that’s a credit to their defense too and their defensive structure.” 

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish junior forward Pierce Crawford fights for the puck during Notre Dame’s 3-2 OT win over Ohio State on Nov. 8.

While traveling on the road presents challenges in having to play in front of large and hostile crowds, the lack of last change is something that all visiting teams must overcome with secondary scoring. As of late, the Irish have found production in their third and fourth lines, averaging 3.8 goals per game as a team, something that should bode well for them as they will have to travel for five of their next six games. While the top senior line of the Irish has been struggling to find the back of the net, coach Jackson is pleased with some of his depth players scoring at opportune times.

“I think that right now our senior line is not scoring. I guess it’s a good thing that we’re winning with the fact that they’re not scoring because eventually they’re going to start getting some goals,” Jackson said. “When people look at the depth chart, they see them as being our three leading scorers so they’re going to put their best players on the ice against them and when you’re on the road, that’s even more significant because you don’t have last change. I know that eventually they’re going to start being productive again, it’s just a matter of when. But in the meantime, it’s great to see that we’re getting production out of other guys. We need that. We need to get production out of all four lines as the season progresses because you can’t always count on your top line.”

Coach Jackson has also been searching for more offensive production from his special teams unit on the man-advantage, something that was missing in both series against Ohio State and Wisconsin as the Irish failed to convert on any man advantage opportunity they received, going 0-9 in four games.

“We did make a few changes on the power play. When things aren’t working, we have to move people around and give other guys a chance,” Jackson said. “We have to generate scoring chances on the power play. If we’re not doing that then we’re not going to score. So, it starts with generating scoring chances and then secondly, it’s about finishing and trying to score some goals. Until we get it working the way we need to, then we’ll probably tinker with it.”

A big strength of the Irish has been their defensive structure and goaltending, something that has been critical to their success as Notre Dame has matched their best start since the 2006-07 season when it began the year 8-1-1.

“I really like how our D-core is playing as a whole right now, especially the young guys,” junior defensemen Matt Hellickson said. “I think we’ve moved really well as a D-core and then everybody has been moving their feet.”

Another big strength of the Irish has been their ability to come from behind in several games this season. With the win over Wisconsin last Saturday, that marked the sixth time the Irish have had to overcome deficits in order to earn their wins. Matt Hellickson attested to the resiliency and the attitude that have played a factor to the Notre Dame efforts from behind this season.

“We have really good emotional control on the bench, and I think that’s one thing that helps us be the comeback kids. If we’re down one or two goals, we don’t usually let that affect us on the bench,” Hellickson said. “We still have a really upbeat attitude and until that final buzzer goes off, we always know in the back of our heads that we have a chance to win.”

Puck drop for the critical Big 10 series is set for 7:00 p.m. at the Munn Ice Arena.

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