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Sports

McGuinness: The puck stops here — Irish defense, goaltending are seeds to a successful 2022

| Thursday, January 13, 2022

If you just looked at the Big 10 standings, you might not think there’s a big difference between this year’s Notre Dame hockey team (15-6-0, 8-4-0 Big 10) and last year’s. After all, the Irish finished third in the conference last year; with just under half of this year’s 36-game schedule left to play, Notre Dame sits in the same spot.

But there’s a level of consistency and dependability in this year’s squad that last year’s club lacked. Maybe it’s as simple as the energy reinvigorated in Compton Family Ice Arena thanks to the return of fans; after all, the Irish have nearly doubled their home win total from last season in four fewer games. Maybe it’s the impact of the veteran poise of four graduate transfers, one of whom, Matthew Galadja, has made up half of one of the sport’s best goaltending tandems. Or maybe it’s the leap taken by a couple of forwards that were complementary pieces in last year’s offense that have now proven capable of driving the bus themselves. Regardless, this year’s Irish team is much more dangerous than last year’s club, or perhaps any Notre Dame hockey team since the 2017-2018 team that reached the NCAA championship.

It doesn’t take an incredibly deep analysis to realize that. Last year, the Irish had a .517 winning percentage; this year’s team is playing at a .714 clip, tied for second in the B10 and just .003 behind Michigan. That is the same Michigan team the Irish beat on back-to-back nights in Ann Arbor in mid-November to knock off the No. 1 team in the entire nation. The Irish have only lost consecutive games once in regulation this year; they did so three times last year in just four more games.

While last year’s team was just solid across the board, the 2021-2022 Irish have a clear identity, one based on their ability to keep the puck out of the net. No team in the B10 has allowed fewer shots on goal at even strength than Notre Dame’s 479. And the Irish defense isn’t a one-trick pony either; Notre Dame’s 92.6% penalty kill is easily the best in the conference, and they also lead the B10 with four short-handed tallies.

Credit a mostly experienced backend, led by senior defensemen Spencer Stastney and Nick Leivermann, for spearheading Notre Dame’s stifling defense. Graduate transfers Adam Karashik and Chase Blackmun have also been key additions, with Karahsik one of three Irish captains and Blackmun playing well alongside Stastney on the top pair. And Notre Dame’s blue-liners are far from one dimensional; the group has combined for 60 points, tied for second in the B10 behind only Michigan.

Of course, for any hockey team to be successful, they must receive good goaltending. With last season’s starter Dylan St. Cyr transferring to Quinnipiac, it was reasonable to be worried about the Irish’s situation between the pipes. Cornell graduate transfer Matthew Galajda missed all of 2020-21 with the Ivy League canceling all winter sports, and junior Ryan Bischel had a pedestrian .900 save percentage in just 16 career games before this season.

These days, there’s a different problem for Notre Dame’s goaltending situation; figuring how to divide the crease. That’s because both Galajda and Bischel have flourished this season, sporting a combined .925 save percentage. Bischel’s .932 mark is on pace to be the second-best mark by an Irish netminder since the 2009-10 season, while Galajda was recently nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, given out to college hockey’s best player.

But he wasn’t the only Irish player to be nominated for the award. Perhaps the biggest surprise on this year’s team is junior right winger Max Ellis, who needed just 13 games to pass his point total from 2020-2021 (in 24 games) and is leading the Irish with 11 goals and 20 points, both of which are easily career highs. Ellis has thrived on a line with junior left winger Jesse Lansdell and senior center Jake Pivonka. Notre Dame has received contributions from up and down its lineup, with players like sophomore right-winger Ryder Rolston, senior center Cam Burke, junior winger Solag Bakich and others chipping in offensively.

It’s a testament to Notre Dame’s depth and the gains made by several players that their team offensive numbers are largely the same as last year despite not receiving quite as much production as they probably expected last year from brothers sophomore left-winger Landon and senior center Graham Slaggert. The duo hasn’t been quite as dominant this year after losing linemate Alex Steeves, last year’s leading scorer who signed his entry-level contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs last spring. Landon and Graham combined for 47 points in just 52 games last season; they’re at 21 in 42 contests this year.

The two do more than just score, of course; they are leaders off the ice and strong players in all three zones. And the offense is due to come as long as they keep shooting the puck; after scoring on 17.4% of their shots in 2020-21, the Slaggerts are shooting at just a 10.8% clip this year. That number should eventually improve, and when it does, Irish eyes will certainly be smiling.

Jeff Jackson’s 17th team at Notre Dame has the potential to go down as one of his best. That’s a lofty assertion considering the success Jackson has had at Notre Dame. But this is one of Jackson’s most well-rounded teams. The defense has a good mix of talented veterans and budding underclassmen that limit opposing offenses. What few chances they do generate are usually snapped up by one of his red-hot goaltenders. And while the Irish don’t have a line as dominant as the L. Slaggert-G. Slaggert-Steves line from 2020-2021, they do have a well-rounded attack that can’t be contained by just one dedicated shut-down line. And it’s not hard to envision the Slaggert brothers reaching another level down the stretch, especially if they can finally start getting some well-deserved bounces.

These are all key pieces not just to winning regular-season games, which no Big 10 team has done more of in conference play than the Irish so far, but going deep in the conference and national tournaments as well. Notre Dame has done seemingly everything but won a national title under Jackson. And while the Irish probably won’t be regarded as one of the true favorites, they have enough pieces to win over doubters and build on their strong start in 2022.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Andrew McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is a sophomore 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 or Survivor.

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