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ND looks to improve conference record against Nittany Lions

| Friday, January 31, 2020

It has been a challenging stretch of hockey games for Notre Dame.

The team has won one of its last six Big Ten games in regulation, ending its winless streak last Saturday at home against Wisconsin. The Irish now sit fourth in the Big Ten, just under a .500 win percent with a 6-7-3 conference record.

Irish head coach Jeff Jackson commented on the current Big Ten landscape and how challenging it is to play in such a deep league.

“Last year we finished in second place, we were .500,” Jackson said. “And that could happen again this year, because everybody’s beating up on everybody. Some teams have got a much better non-conference record than we do, which is hurting us right now because… last year I don’t think we lost a game non-conference … But [what’s] going to make it interesting in the playoffs, too, is that you’re going to have a lot of teams that are very close, and there’s no weak link in our conference.”

The Irish will need to start accumulating points to have a chance at an at large bid to the NCAA Tournament, beginning this weekend on the road against No. 8/9 Penn State. The Nittany Lions (17-8-1, 9-6-1 Big Ten) sits at second in the conference, but the Irish could make considerable headway by winning both games.

Erin Fennessy | The Observer
Irish sophomore forward Jake Pivonka fights for the puck during Notre Dame’s 5-2 win over Wisconsin on Jan. 25.

Penn State’s high-speed style of play presents a unique challenge. Under head coach Guy Gadowsky the team shoots pucks from everywhere on the ice. They lead the NCAA in shots on goal, as they have each of the previous four seasons.

Jackson said that the Irish will have to be ready for their speed and shot volume.

“That’s their style and it works for them,” Jackson said. “That’s why they’re one of the best offensive teams in the country. They’ve got some skill and talent to back that up, but yeah, they shoot from everywhere and that creates some level of chaos and craziness, and that’s where in the past our goaltending has been able to handle that. We have to do a good job with the puck because that’s where most of their game comes from, is transition. They’re out of the zone quickly and they get up the ice quick and they’re effective once they get in the offensive zone. The puck’s going to the net from all different angles.”

Penn State’s shot-happy style has worked wonders on the power play, with their 28% conversion rate placing them tied for second in college hockey. Conversely, the Irish penalty kill will limp into this matchup with a 74% kill rate, fourth-worst nationally.

Jackson knows the Irish will need to be better on this front to win.

“That’s something we’ve worked on twice this week,” Jackson said. “We’re doing everything in our power to get that part of our game on track. Right now, that’s the biggest detriment to our team and we have to find a way to get over that and try some different people there and just keep working with it. We have to try to get guys to understand we have to do a better job of blocking shots and picking up people around the net. Most importantly, though, is we can’t give up passes through the seams, cross-ice passes, which become more challenging to stop for a goaltender.”

The Irish have been mediocre on the road, sporting a 3-5-3 record away from Compton Family Ice Arena, especially dismal compared to Penn State’s 10-4-1 mark on home ice. Jackson feels his team is prepared for a tough road environment.

“Their building is very similar to ours,” Jackson said. “It’s a little bit bigger but very similar to our building. They have great fan support, a great student section that’s as loud as there is in the country. And I know they got a big whiteout thing going on Saturday night, wearing all-white uniforms with a white crowd, and it’s always one of the tougher venues in college hockey to play in. It’s an intimidating building, and you just have to tone that out and go play. That’s the most important thing. And I think for the most part our guys have been through that. They’ve played in other tough venues this year, so it’s not like it’s something that’s going to be surprising. And if you have the emotional control just to turn it around to think they’re cheering for you as opposed to the opponent, you’re okay.”

The Irish will take on the Nittany Lions at 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday night at Pegula Ice Arena in University Park, PA.

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