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Irish to face Spartans in final regular season road series

| Friday, February 26, 2021

For the final time this regular season, the Irish are gearing up for a match-up away from Compton Family Ice Arena. That actually may not be as great as it sounds. The Irish own a stellar 8-2-0 record on the road this regular season. But with a home series against Penn State and the Big Ten tournament to be hosted in South Bend this year, the Irish will have home cooking for the foreseeable future.

How bright that future will be is up to how head coach Jeff Jackson’s club plays down the stretch. Notre Dame (10-12-2, 8-10-2-1-2-2 Big Ten) responded to a goalless showing in two games against Minnesota with seven tallies and a series split in Madison against against Wisconsin last weekend. the Irish let a 2-0 lead go by the wayside in the series opener, surrendering four unanswered goals.

Saturday’s contest against the Badgers was one of their most entertaining games all season; a frantic back-and-forth ending with multiple 3rd-period lead changes. The Irish started trailing 3-2, tied it at 3, then fell behind again. Back-to-back goals by junior forward Alex Steeves and sophomore forward Solag Bakich gave them the lead. But even though Wisconsin tied it in the final minute, the Irish didn’t let anything get to them.

“Each time we go into the locker room, we have the mindset of the next 20 minutes,” senior defenseman Matt Hellickson said. “We like to split the game into three different sections. It helps us with the mindset of washing whatever happened in the last twenty minutes. It wasn’t anything we weren’t used to. We’re used to playing down.”

That mindest paid off Saturday as the Irish didn’t stay down, picking up the extra Big Ten point thanks to sophomore forward Max Ellis’ shootout winner.

This weekend’s penultimate regular-season series pits Notre Dame against Michigan State (7-13-2, 5-12-1-2-1-0). On paper, this looks like a warm-up for the rapidly approaching Big Ten Playoffs. After all, MSU sits at the very bottom of the conference standings, averaging fewer than two goals per game and sporting a -27 goal differential. They lost 4-2 and 5-1 at Minnesota last week and have dropped five of their last six.

However, the Irish learned the hard way that no opponent can be taken lightly the first time they played MSU this season in December. The teams officially tied their first meeting (though the Irish again earned the extra Big Ten point shootout style), but senior defenseman Tommy Miller’s goal 1:26 into extra hockey dealt the Irish a 4-3 OT defeat in the rubber match.

“I don’t call it unlucky,” Hellickson said of the previous results against the Spartans. “I don’t think it was anything we did [wrong]. They play very structured, very patient game. We know we’re gonna have to play a full 60 minutes at least because they’re really good defensively. We know we just have to be patient, stick to our game plan, and eventually it’ll work out.”

Notre Dame’s best line last weekend featured Steeves and junior and first-year brothers Graham and Landon Slaggert. The trio scored three goals at 5-on-5 (two from Steeves, one from Graham), and Steeves added another on the power-play that Landon recorded an assist on. That line was the only one to light the lamp on last Friday’s loss.

“They just communicate really well,” Hellickson said. “They all have a similar play-style — high skilled, fast pace. The chemistry in that line is second to none.”

Steeves and Graham Slaggert (1 goal and 1 assist apiece) also had success in the first series against the Spartans.

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Irish junior forward Graham Slaggert looks to avoid a check during Notre Dame’s 3-0 loss to Minnesota on Feb. 13 at Compton Family Ice Arena.

In goal, senior Dylan St. Cyr faced a ton of shots but played solidly and was spectacular in Saturday’s shootout, going a perfect 3-for-3. However, this would be his first time seeing the Spartans this year. Sophomore Ryan Bischel started each of the first two contests, posting a stellar .947 save percentage in the first meeting between these clubs. He allowed four goals on 24 shots in the rubber match.

If there’s one area the Irish would love to improve, it’s their power-play. Steeves’ power-play goal in the third period Saturday snapped an 0-for-8 drought. Only the Spartans have a worse power-play percentage in the Big Ten than Notre Dame’s 16.7% mark. Unfortunately, MSU does have a strong penalty kill, ranking third in the conference at 80%.

Overall, the Spartans should provide a solid test for the Irish before the Big Ten Tournament. This year, it will be taking place at Compton Family Ice Arena from March 14-16. The Irish currently sit tied for third in the conference with Michigan at 29 points, and they are 9 points clear of 5th-place Penn State and 12 behind the 2nd-place Badgers. In other words, prepping for the tournament and jostling for position with Michigan is what’s at stake the next two weekends.

Notre Dame and Michigan State will battle it out this weekend at 6 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday. Both games will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network Plus.

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About Andrew McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is a senior in Siegfried Hall and Sports Editor of The Observer. He is from Haddonfield, New Jersey, and loves all of his Philly sports teams, even if they don't always love him back. Reach out below or on Twitter (@_AndrewMcG) to talk sports or TV shows, especially if they're Stranger Things, Survivor, Abbott Elementary or/and Severance.

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