Moller: Irish hockey can compete for Big Ten title
Nate Moller | Thursday, December 2, 2021
Coming into this season, I was skeptical of the Irish’s ability to contend in the Big Ten against teams like Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, who were all highly touted in the preseason. However, with the way the Irish have been playing as of late, the Irish should find themselves in the mix to win the Big Ten this season.
Let’s start by looking at the current Big Ten standings. Although the Irish currently sit at fourth place behind Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, they definitely made a statement two weeks ago when they beat top-ranked Michigan twice on the road in overtime. It should be noted that Michigan and Minnesota have played two more conference games and three more games total than the Irish, so the Irish really aren’t that far behind them.
One of the low points in the Irish season so far happened at the end of October. This is when the Irish were swept on the road in Minnesota by a combined score of 7-3 over the two games in the series. Since the sweep, the Irish have been playing significantly better than the Gophers. The Gophers have gone 4-4 since playing the Irish, while the Irish have put up a perfect 6-0 mark. The Gophers have a load of talent and have one of the most lethal front lines in the NCAA, but their struggles as of late indicate that they might be vulnerable over the remainder of the season.
Michigan still sits atop of the Big Ten despite dropping two games to the Irish, and they will likely prove to be the toughest team for the Irish to beat out in the Big Ten this season. The Wolverines are 12-4 so far on the season with wins against three teams in the current top 10. Although the Irish won both the games on the road in the first series, both games were won in thrilling fashion, and it will be tough for the Irish to replicate that success going forward. Despite this, I firmly believe the Irish have one of the best teams from top to bottom in the Big Ten and that any matchup with Michigan will be highly contested.
Ohio State is the only other team currently sitting above the Irish in the Big Ten standings. The Irish face the Buckeyes this weekend, which could be telling for how the Big Ten race will shape up over the remainder of the season. Despite having more points than the Irish at the moment, the Buckeyes have already faced the Spartans and Nittany Lions, who will likely finish near the bottom of the Big Ten standings.
Other good news for the Irish is the poor play of Wisconsin, who started the season as one of the favorites to win the Big Ten. The Irish swept the Badgers at Compton Family Ice Arena two weeks ago by a combined score of 8-1, and the Badgers have looked incompetent so far, winning only 2 of 8 games in Big Ten play so far. It does not look like the Badgers are going to be in contention for the title this year, which should help the Irish in their quest to take back the Big Ten title this season.
Clearly there are weaknesses in all of the Big Ten teams, including the Irish, so let’s look at what makes this Irish team special.
One of the most impressive stats this season has been on the penalty kill where the Irish are 46-for-49. This ranks first in the NCAA, and the success on the penalty kill could prove to be the difference maker for the Irish going forward against their Big Ten foes. The defense as a whole has been better, but graduate student transfer Adam Karashik is one of the main reasons that the Irish have found so much success lately on the penalty kill. Karashik has done a great job stepping into a leadership role for the defense and has held a very tight line so far this season. Karashik is joined by fellow veterans such as seniors Nick Leivermann and Spencer Stastney and graduate student Chase Blackmun. Sophomores Jake Boltmann and Zach Plucinski have also developed nicely for the Irish which helps bolster the defensive roster.
The Irish have also found a go to guy for goal scoring this year in junior forward Max Ellis. Ellis leads the team with ten goals (eighth in NCAA) and 18 points and is tied for the team lead in assists with eight. Ellis’ goal scoring ability was on full display two weekends ago against Michigan where he recorded a hat trick. Championship teams need to have a main goal scorer and Ellis should be able to fill that role for the Irish over the remainder of the season.
Another part of what makes the Irish so strong is the depth that the team has. Thirteen different players have scored for the Irish so far this season and 18 have recorded points. This depth will be vital for the Irish in the middle of winter when they inevitably have some injured players.
I firmly believe that there is room for improvement for the Irish this year as well. Senior Graham Slaggert and sophomore Landon Slaggert have been relatively quiet so far this season, but I don’t anticipate that lasting long. The Slaggert brothers were second and third on the team last year for goals scored, but have only scored for a combined nine goals so far this season. I expect them both to have better stretches over the remainder of the season, which should complement Ellis’ play nicely.
I haven’t even mentioned the Irish’s arguably biggest strength: head coach Jeff Jackson. This is Jackson’s 17th year leading the Irish, and his experience is unrivaled by any coach in the Big Ten. Jackson has failed to get over the hump and win a national title, but he has led the Irish to four Frozen Fours and two Big Ten tournament titles in 2018 and 2019. I have full confidence in Jackson to continue to develop this team going forward and put them in prime position to win the Big Ten this season.
There is lots of hockey to be played over the next few months, but with the way the Irish are playing right now, they have a great chance to reclaim the Big Ten title this season. With Michigan and Minnesota coming to Compton Family Ice Arena at the end of the year, the Irish should be in a perfect position to win these vital games on their home ice and find themselves on the top of the Big Ten.