Irish set to open Big Ten Tournament against Penn State
Nate Moller | Friday, March 12, 2021
The 19th-ranked Notre Dame hockey team will play in the Big Ten Tournament beginning this weekend at Compton Family Ice Arena. The Irish (14-12-2, 12-10-2-1-2-2 Big Ten) are the No. 4 seed in the tournament and will play their first game against the 5th-seeded Penn State Nittany Lions (9-11-0, 7-11-0-2-1-0 Big Ten) on Sunday at noon.
The Irish have been playing well as of late, recording sweeps in their past two series against Michigan State and Penn State. Head coach Jeff Jackson has attributed a lot of his team’s success to the talent of his team — primarily senior goaltender Dylan St. Cyr — on the penalty kill.
“Dylan St. Cyr has given us real solid goaltending here in the last several weeks,” Jackson said. “Our penalty kills have gotten better. I think part of that is due to Dylan. But I think that we have finally solidified certain guys to kill penalties both on forwards and defense, and I think we have done a much better play in that regard.”
Jackson hopes that his second team can improve on the power play in the conference tournament this coming week.
“I think that the tough thing for us is we need to get a second group to be productive, because it’s hard to have a successful power play when you only have a minute of a two-minute power play that you’re legitimately gonna have a chance to score,” he said.
Jackson also acknowledged that the combination of good goaltending, penalty kills and power plays will be vital as ever in the postseason.
“You certainly can’t win without those specific things in the playoffs,” he said. “Those three things and discipline are probably the most critical things going into the postseason.”
Jackson believes his team has been playing more complete games as of late, and if the Irish are to make a run in the tournament, they will need to keep playing 60 minutes of good hockey.
“It’s still a concern of mine, just being able to play the full 60 minutes at a high level,” he said. “But we have gotten better, and hopefully going into the playoffs, we will have the sense of urgency to be able to play three full periods or more. For us, it’s just a matter of playing consistently through 60 minutes.”
Currently sitting at 19th in the poll, the Irish might have a distant chance of receiving an at-large berth in the upcoming 16-team NCAA tournament, but it is likely they will need to beat Penn State on Sunday as well as top-seed Wisconsin in the semifinals to have a chance.
Because of a lack of non-conference play this season, the selection process for the NCAA tournament seems fairly up in the air, but Jackson believes his team has a strong case for a spot, based on the strength of their schedule in the Big Ten.
“My best defense for us to have a chance is that I’d be surprised if there’s another team in the country that’s had to play three of the top teams 12 times this season. And we have done okay,” he said. “We have four wins and a tie in those 12 games, so we are close to .500. We have played 12 games against Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and I think that should stand for something.”
The Gophers, Badgers and Wolverines are currently fourth, fifth and sixth in the country, respectively, which will make the path for the Irish difficult. If the Irish can get past the Nittany Lions on Sunday, they will likely have to beat two of those three teams to claim the title.
“I think we’re gonna probably have to win Sunday for sure, and probably Monday [against Wisconsin], which is going to be a challenge. To win the championship would be a real challenge with three games in three days,” Jackson said. “I think we still control our own destiny as far as I’m concerned. All we have to do right now is focus on Sunday.”
Jackson discussed the mentality that his team must have going into the postseason.
“It’s not just about the intensity, but it’s also about the execution. Most teams when they’re dialed in are going to execute their game plan as well as they can,” Jackson said. “They’re going to play with great mental intensity as far as playing the game the way that they’ve been taught to play.”
The Irish have not played well at Compton this year, as they posted a 5-10-1 home record compared to a 9-2-1 away standing this season.
Jackson discussed how, when playing at home, the effects of an empty arena have been more apparent to him and his team.
“When we’re on the road, I very seldom noticed the lack of fans. When we are at home, I noticed that, and I have to believe that has a direct impact on the student-athletes,” he said. “Not having the pep band, not having the student section and not having the actual game noise … It just feels bizarre.”
The Irish are 3-1 against the Nittany Lions on the year and are coming off of a series sweep of them last weekend at Compton, recording dominating wins of 5-2 and 7-1. The teams split a pair of overtime decisions earlier in the season in Happy Valley.
Sunday’s game is set for a noon puck drop, and the entirety of the Big Ten Tournament can be viewed on the Big Ten Network.