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Sports

Irish Hockey set for pivotal Big Ten rematch with Minnesota

| Friday, January 28, 2022

When the Notre Dame hockey team (17-7-0, 9-5-0-3-0-0 B10) ended October with their first two regulation losses of the season in consecutive road matches against the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (14-10-0, 9-5-0-1-1-0 B10), the sense of urgency was mild. The Irish were still in the process of finding out who they were as a team and a 4-0-1 start to the year cushioned the disappointment of that late October weekend.

It’s safe to say there’s a bit more at stake this time around. The Irish find themselves in the middle of the Big Ten standings, three points behind Minnesota and nine behind Michigan and Ohio State, who are tied for first place. If Notre Dame plans on making a serious run at their second Big Ten regular-season title or at least wants to improve their odds of earning a higher seed, there’s no time like the present. It won’t be easy to make up ground in a clash of top-15 teams this weekend at Compton Family Ice Arena. But nothing worth attaining comes easily, so the Irish will embrace the challenge that the Golden Gophers present and try to return the favor Minnesota handed them just under three months ago.

“It will probably be another hard-fought, tough weekend of games,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson predicted. “[Minnesota is] very good without the puck. They get underrated for their defensive game. They’re very tight, always got three guys back, they block a lot of shots. They present a double-headed threat. When they play that well defensively, they become a real challenge on transition offensively. You have to pick your spots to generate offense against them.”

That’s something the Irish have struggled with in recent memory. Notre Dame managed three goals in their first series against the Golden Gophers, tying a season-low for one series, while also producing about five fewer shots on goal per game than their season average. Even dating back to last year, the offense has been a challenge for the Irish against Minnesota. The Golden Gophers stopped an Irish offense coming off an eight-goal performance dead in its tracks. Sound familiar? They kept the Irish off the scoreboard entirely with consecutive 3-0 wins in Compton. Jackson specifically complimented the patience and maturity of the experienced Golden Gophers, something he stressed the Irish need to match. That would be tougher if Notre Dame is without leading scorer junior right winger Max Ellis and another important forward in junior Jesse Lansdell; Jackson said both are “day-to-day” as of Wednesday, leaving their status for the weekend in doubt.

So will the Irish have to lean on their defense this weekend? Yes, although maybe not in the way you would think. By now, the Irish have long established themselves as an elite defensive team. The Irish are eighth in the NCAA and first in the Big Ten at 2.08 goals against per game. Their penalty kill is second-best in the entire country and has nearly as many goals for (5) than against (7). They are the only team with multiple nominees for the Mike Richter Award, given to college hockey’s top goaltender, in graduate transfer Matthew Galajda and junior Ryan Bischel.

However, that doesn’t mean the Irish are just going to sit back on defense and count on their goaltender making 40 saves to win. Notre Dame’s defense will be at the center of their efforts this weekend, but that doesn’t just mean limiting chances in their end; the Irish blue-liners are a key part of their transition, particularly senior Spencer Stastney — who Jackson called “underrated,” and most tellingly, “a dominant player who’s not necessarily a pure offensive or defensive defenseman” — as well as another senior in Nick Leivermann.

But Jackson also seemed to indicate there’s another level for that group to reach. “Offensive zone play by the defenseman has gotta be a huge part of your (team) offense,” Jackson said. “There’s times I’d like to see our defenseman shoot more, especially on the power-play.”

Jackson was certainly pleased to see Stastney record his second power-play goal of the season in last Wednesday’s 8-2 rout of Boston College. It was just the third PPG by an Irish defenseman (Leivermann has the other), which is a bit shocking since both Statsney and Leivermann are top 20 in goals by blue-liners in the entire country. That’s more of an indictment on ND’s power-play as a whole rather than the two senior defenders; the former had been pretty mediocre for most of the season before tallying a season-high three times against Boston College. If that’s the start of a breakout for the Irish man-advantage, it would be a massive step in turning the Irish into the type of complete team that rises to the forefront of national championship contention.

“The unit with (junior forward) Trevor Janicke, (sophomore forward) Grant Silanoff, Lansdell, Statsney, and (graduate student defenseman) Chase Blackmun has been a lot more productive than anybody else we’ve had all season long. They’ve been probably the guys that have had the biggest impact on scoring,” Jackson said. But again, there’s still room for growth. “I think right now one unit’s productive, we just need to get a second unit that gives us a chance to score every game between the two units.”

From the power-play to the role of their best defenseman to the status of some of their most important players, there’s a lot to think about for this critical Big Ten matchup. The Irish and Golden Gophers drop the puck on Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 6 p.m. at Compton Family Ice Arena. Both games will be streamed live on Peacock.

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About Andrew McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is a sophomore in Siegfried Hall from Haddonfield, New Jersey, a short drive away from Philadelphia. Naturally, he loves all of his Philadelphia sports teams, even if they don't always love him back. Feel free to reach out to talk sports or TV shows, especially if they're Ted Lasso, Stranger Things, or/and Survivor.

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