Young players shine as Irish take two from Buckeyes in weekend series
This past weekend, the No. 5 Notre Dame Irish hosted the No. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes in a two-game series. After securing four Big Ten points against Minnesota, the Irish (7-0-1, 3-0-1 Big Ten) looked to continue their unbeaten start on home ice, their first since the 1998-99 season.
In game one of the series, Notre Dame would need some late game heroics and an overtime winner to pull out the victory against the Buckeyes (6-3-1, 2-2-0 Big Ten).
In the first frame, the Irish came out playing fast and physical hockey, racking up several hits within the first three minutes. Both teams struggled to generate high-danger scoring chances early on, as each team’s defense held most shots to the outside perimeters of their zone. Ohio State controlled most of the possession in the early stages of the period until an interference penalty on Buckeyes sophomore defenseman Ryan O’Connell gave the Irish their first look on the power play.
However, the man advantage was short lived, as Irish junior forward Colin Theisen sat for tripping. Both the Irish and Buckeye specials teams were called upon several more times during the frame, but tight work on the side of the penalty kill units neutralized both power plays.
Action quickly heated up as the Big Ten rivals began to extend their physicality after the whistle. Momentum began to swing Notre Dame’s way late in the period as they found themselves earning quality scoring chances in front of junior goaltender Tommy Nappier. Despite the majority of the chances going the way of the Irish, it was Ohio State that drew first blood. Buckeyes senior forward Tanner Leczynski put his team ahead 1-0 when his tipped shot from junior defensemen Grant Gabriele from the point found twine behind senior goaltender Cale Morris with half a minute left in the frame. The one-goal advantage for Ohio State held into the end of the period as both teams headed into the dressing room.
The Irish started the second period down a man for the first four minutes as a five-minute major head contact penalty and game misconduct taken in the first period ended freshman forward Jesse Lansdell’s night early. The Irish penalty-killing unit stood tall and Morris stopped every shot as they foiled the extended power play for Ohio State.
“When you have a full five minutes to kill, it’s a real challenge, but our guys kept the shifts short. They did a good job,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “We got good goaltending during that stretch too. You’ve got to have good a goaltending performance when you’re killing off that kind of a penalty. I thought the forwards and the defensemen all did a pretty good job of protecting Cale, but when he needed to, he made some big saves.”
The Irish soon found the back of the net when freshman forward Solag Bakich squeaked a shot through the five-hole of Nappier, tying the score up at one apiece. Junior forward Matt Steeves and senior defensemen Tory Dello would pick up assists on the goal.
The Irish continued to be relentless, as a mad scramble in front of the net almost gave Notre Dame the lead, but Nappier stood tall and fended off the Irish onslaught. The Irish also continued to play a physical style of hockey, landing several checks along the boards to slow the Buckeyes. Despite leading the shot counter being 23-18, the furious Irish attack failed to generate any more goals as the 1-1 score line hold at the end of two periods.
In the third frame, both teams played fast two-way hockey, testing both Morris and Nappier, but both goaltenders were up to the task, turning away the early chances at each end. Action in the game slowed toward the middle of the period, as both the Buckeyes and the Irish struggled to generate shots on goal. Notre Dame soon earned extended zone time with gritty work along the boards and turnovers in the neutral zone, but momentum stopped when junior defenseman Matt Hellickson took a minor penalty for interference.
The Irish penalty kill again answered the call, killing off their fifth power play of the night. Notre Dame kept the pressure on the Buckeyes by getting pucks deep and keeping things inside the zone, allowing the offense to cycle the puck around. Even with momentum in favor of the Irish, Ohio State began to force turnovers and earn a go-ahead goal when senior forward Carson Meyer beat Morris on the high glove with a sizzling wrister. Junior forward Austin Pooley and senior defensemen Gordi Myer picked up assists on the goal.
The Buckeyes’ lead would not last long, however, as a feed from senior forward Cam Morrison connected with freshman forward Trevor Janicke. Janicke did not miss the open net and tied the game up at two late in the third period.
“It’s a good sign. The ability to come back right away after they scored, especially that late in the period, was huge,” Jackson said. “[Morrison] made a nice play to [number] 27, and Janicke took advantage.”
The 2-2 score held as the game went to five-on-five overtime to decide who would earn the extra Big Ten conference point.
The Irish and the Buckeyes traded chances at both ends in the overtime period, with Notre Dame having the majority of the high danger chances. The Irish finally broke through when a stretch pass from the stick of sophomore defenseman Nate Clurman connected with junior forward Pierce Crawford into the Buckeye zone. Crawford fired a wrist shot past Nappier to give the Irish the win, the extra conference point and continue the unbeaten streak.
Jackson commented on the elevated play of the team’s freshmen that helped to power the Irish victory.
“That’s key for us — that the young guys have to step up. Our line with [senior forwards Mike] O’Leary and [Cal] Burke, they’re playing against the other team’s top line and defensive pairing. They’re not going to be able to score every night,” Jackson said. “If we don’t get production from other people, then we’re going to have a hard time scoring goals, and that’s when you have those young guys step up that really makes a big difference.”
After that thrilling win that saw the Irish offense come alive late, the team came out slowly on offense on Saturday, focusing on sound defense and a strong breakout.
Notre Dame started the second game playing very well in its own defensive zone, looking comfortable breaking the puck out and confident skating through the neutral zone. The team dumped the puck deep at every opportunity, seeking to apply pressure to the Buckeyes defense but not generating the turnovers they needed to create scoring chances. Jackson had high praise for Ohio State’s discipline.
“When you play a really good team like Ohio State, they force you to turn pucks over in key areas of the ice. They’re a very well-coached team, they’re a very good defensive team and they play to their strengths,” Jackson said. “You have to play a very patient game, and it’s hard for kids this age to play patient for a full 60 minutes.”
Late in the first period, when the Buckeyes were already on the power play, Ohio State sophomore forward Quinn Preston took a five-minute major game misconduct for elbowing, giving the Irish 90 seconds of four-on-four followed by a three and a half minutes of power play. The Irish power play had a massive opportunity to break the scoreless tie.
However, they failed to take advantage of the lengthy power play, spending most of their zone time passing the puck around the perimeter seeking to set up deflections. While they were able to get pucks to the front, they were unable to get the puck luck they needed on the shots through traffic. After a weekend that saw both teams fail to score on the power play, Jackson had praise for both penalty kill units.
“Ohio State has always been one of the best penalty kill teams in the country, and they have a really good goaltender,” he said. “I’m sure both teams feel the same way about their power plays after this weekend.”
The second period featured heavy play, with more physicality and hitting from both sides than the first period. Despite the different style, the Irish continued to play sound defense with quality goaltending from Morris. As the teams struggled to get the puck to the front, it felt like the first goal could hold even more weight than normal, and ultimately it was the Buckeyes that struck first.
Sophomore Buckeyes forward Gustaf Westlund deflected a fluttering wrist shot by Pooley into the back of the net, giving the Buckeyes a 1-0 advantage for the second time in as many nights. They would take that lead into the second intermission, and Jackson his speech in the locker room between periods was relaxed and he put the game in his players’ hands.
“It was a really heart to heart. There wasn’t any screaming and yelling — I did that on the bench in the middle of the second period because I was not overly happy with the way we were playing in the second period,” Jackson said. “I told them, ‘It’s in your hands, you guys handle it.’ They did, so give them credit.”
The Irish took a too-many-men penalty early in the third but killed it with relative ease and picked up momentum in doing so. The team looked more determined to create scoring chances and far less satisfied to dump the puck in and play conservatively, knowing they would need to score soon to win the game.
After some time buzzing around the Buckeyes net, sophomore defenseman Charlie Raith set up sophomore forward Jake Pivonka in front, who masterfully moved around the Buckeyes net minder to tie the game. The squad did not stop there, continuing to press the Buckeyes defense. Less than four minutes later, sophomore forward Cam Burke beat Nappier over his blocker with a snapshot from the slot off the feed from Matt Steeves.
The goal from Cam Burke was the second straight night the team got a goal from its fourth line, and Jackson said this was a massive key to the team’s success this weekend.
“Last night, we get a big goal from freshman forward Solag Bakich and tonight was Cam Burke, and we got a real nice play from Charlie Raith on Pivonka’s goal,” Jackson said. “That’s critical for any good team. You have to have depth scoring and guys who step up in big moments.”
It was a beautiful sequence for a team that had struggled to that point generating chances from high-danger areas. Holding a 2-1 lead with 7:35 remaining, the team was able to return to the heavy, defensive style it opened with. The Irish pinned the Buckeyes into their own end, making it impossible for them to even pull their goalie until there were under 90 seconds in the game. The Irish played a strong defensive game, and a few minutes of offense leading to two goals were enough to dispel Ohio State. Cale Morris praised his team’s resilience and maturity after the pair of comebacks.
“Ohio State gave us everything we could handle. They are a top-tier team in the Big Ten and nationally ranked, but I love this group,” Morris said. “We’re pretty resilient — we don’t get frazzled. I think we showed a lot of maturity and stuck to our process and [kept] wearing teams down.”
The Irish will continue Big Ten play next weekend, when they travel to face Wisconsin on Friday and Saturday.