Irish return home for pivotal series against fifth-ranked Gophers
Nate Moller | Friday, February 12, 2021
Notre Dame hockey will return to action this weekend at Compton Family Ice Arena, where the Irish will play host to the fifth-ranked Minnesota Gophers.
The Irish (10-9-1, 8-7-1-1-2-1 Big Ten) are coming off of a road series sweep against Ohio State last weekend. In both games, the Irish dominated from start to finish and secured victories of 6-1 and 8-1 respectively.
Head coach Jeff Jackson acknowledged that the special teams play of his squad has improved this season, and it looked the best it has all year in last weekend’s series sweep.
“Last weekend was the best our power plays looked all season long,” Jackson said. “I think a lot of it had to do with some of the personnel changes because of guys being out. But it’s also just trying to give other guys an opportunity because it wasn’t operating at a real high level earlier on. It’s just a positive step moving forward.”
The Gophers (15-5-0, 11-5-0-0-0-0 Big Ten) have looked stellar throughout most of the season, but they struggled mightily last weekend, losing to Wisconsin by scores of 4-1 and 8-1. The Irish have had success against the Gophers this year as well. In mid-January they were able to sweep then-No. 1 Minnesota in Minneapolis by scores of 3-2 and 2-1.
The Irish and Gophers have had a lot of one goal games over the past few seasons, and Jackson expects more of the same this weekend.
“I attribute this to the level of competitiveness of both both programs. In recent years, we have developed that tradition of being one of the better teams in the country, and Minnesota has always had that tradition,” Jackson said. “Anytime you play another team that has that kind of success, there’s always that competitive nature that makes the difference to making it a real close and high-quality game.”
Jackson talked about how both teams’ styles differ greatly in some respects, but how puck possession is a similarity among the teams.
“Both teams play a pretty good puck possession game,” Jackson said. “And when you have two teams that play that way, it’s probably going to minimize big scores running up either way, unless goaltending is inconsistent or if there’s a lot of special teams.”
Jackson has put an emphasis on net play on both ends in recent weeks.
“I didn’t think we were doing a great job in front of our goaltenders because a lot of pucks were going off of bodies and off of us into our net,” Jackson said. “We put a lot more emphasis in the last several weeks on the [defensive] net with our boxing out. With the offensive net it is just getting to the net and then trying to establish body position. Body position at both ends is really what we are talking about.”
Jackson also talked about the goalkeeper situation ahead of the Minnesota series. As of late, senior Dylan St. Cyr has received the majority of playing time in goal. St. Cyr initially received more playing time due to an injury to sophomore Ryan Bischel.
“He seems really dialed in when he’s playing right now,” Jackson said of St. Cyr. “He’s playing a quiet game, which I always look at as being one of the biggest components to being successful because that means he’s not sprawling all over the place and giving up lots of rebounds. He’s controlling his crease really well. And he also gives us some advantage with his puck handling skills.”
The Irish will be missing some players once again this weekend due to nagging day-to-day injuries. Notable names that are likely out for the weekends’ contests include sophomore forward Max Ellis, junior forward Michael Graham and freshman defenseman Zach Plucinski. Even so, Jackson has been impressed with the guys that have stepped up in the midst of the injuries.
“Other guys stepped up, and that’s what’s so important, that you can get other guys that can contribute,” he said. “I thought that especially guys that haven’t played a lot in the earlier part of the season, such as upperclassmen like [senior forward] Matt Steves, [junior forward] Cam Burke and [senior forward] Pierce Crawford, I thought they all did a really good job of taking advantage of the opportunity.”
This weekend’s series could have big implications for the Irish with the postseason roughly a month away. Currently, Notre Dame is sitting in third place in the Big Ten standings with 27 points behind Minnesota (33 points) and Wisconsin (34 points). A sweep this weekend over the Gophers would see the Irish level on points with them and keep them within striking distance of the Badgers.
This weekend could also be very important because of the uncertainties of how the NCAA tournament committee will select teams this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Another sweep for the Irish over a top-five Gopher team would help to bolster them in the eyes of the committee come March.
Jackson discussed how not having non-conference games could make it very difficult in selecting teams for the tournament.
“It’s going to be a challenge. They’re going to have to basically go on winning percentage to some degree, but they’re also going to have to go on the quality of the conference at least from previous years as to where the conferences have been,” he said. “I think that the history of what the conferences have done over the last several years should play into it a little bit.”
The puck will drop at 7:30 p.m. for Friday’s game and 5:30 p.m. Saturday. Friday’s game can be viewed on the NBC Sports Network while Saturday’s game may be viewed via the NBC Sports Stream and via local coverage across the country.