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Irish hockey ends regular season with series sweep of Michigan

| Monday, February 28, 2022

Compton Family Ice Arena fell silent a mere 2:24 after the puck dropped on Friday night. Defenseman Nick Blankenburg crept down undetected off an offensive zone face-off win by the No. 2 Wolverines (25-10-1, 16-9-0-0-0 B10), burying a backdoor feed from Mackie Samoskevich. It was easy to see how Michigan could have used that goal, combined with the motivation of being swept in their home building by the No. 8 Irish (25-9-0, 17-6-0-4-0 B10) back in November, to rule the weekend.

Yet, that couldn’t be farther from what happened.

“We gave up that tough goal to start. That kind of put us on our heels a little bit. (Michigan’s) gonna put everybody in the country on their heels at times,” said head coach Jeff Jackson. “But I thought we started getting more acclimated to making plays. They’re a fast team, but I think we are too. I think we did a good job anticipating and getting better plays with the puck.”

Once the Irish started making plays with the puck, they never really stopped. Facing a Michigan team with an embarrassment of riches in six first-round picks (the same amount as the rest of college hockey combined), the Irish didn’t just skate with Michigan. Instead, they made the extra plays and effort necessary to take both of their final two regular-season contests by 4-1 and 2-1 finals. The Irish held a Michigan team that averages nearly eight goals and 68 shots per weekend to just two and 61, respectively.

Notre Dame didn’t flip the switch immediately after the Blankenburg goal. Instead, Michigan kept the pressure on throughout the first half of Friday’s opening period. Nevertheless, the Irish capitalized on their first extended offensive zone shift of the game. Senior center Graham Slaggert banged in the rebound of a shot by senior defenseman Nick Leivermann, tipped en route by junior right winger Trevor Janicke.

Then, Michigan cracked the door open when the Irish won a challenge for head contact on John Beecher late in the first period. The Irish power-play kicked said door in, courtesy of a goal from the slick hands of junior left wing Jesse Lansdell. Lansdell deftly slid the puck to himself and into an open net before Michigan goaltender Erik Portillo could get back into position.

The Irish kicked into high gear from there, outshooting the Wolverines 15-8 in the second period and extending their lead. Leivermann, who returned from injury for the first time in nearly a month last weekend, darted around defenders to flip a backhander. This created a rebound which graduate student right wing Jack Adams immediately jammed in. The Irish didn’t slow down in the third period, either, creating chances including a pair of breakaways. That doesn’t even count the awarded goal for senior defenseman Spencer Stastney, with the Irish already down two men themselves.

Couple all of that with 28 saves from graduate student Matthew Galajda, and the Irish started the weekend on a convincing note. Even though Friday’s victory clinched the No. 3 seed in the B10 Tournament, Jackson certainly wasn’t looking at Saturday’s game as meaningless.

“I was just worried about tonight. We’re still trying to establish our position from the NCAA Tournament,” Galajda said. “They’re gonna come with a big pushback and we’re gonna have to be ready to play at the same level, if not better.”

Sure enough, the Irish answered the bell, playing just as good (if not better) on Saturday. This time it was Notre Dame coming out of the gates strong, outshooting Michigan 11-6 in the opening frame. The score remained 0-0 through 20 minutes, but the Irish stayed undeterred. They broke through when freshman center Hunter Strand one-timed a gorgeous saucer pass from freshman left winger Justin Janicke to open the scoring.

Notre Dame’s usually stellar penalty kill, which still went 6 for 7 on the weekend, suffered a rare goal against from No. 2 overall pick Matty Beniers. This knotted the game 6:11 into the third period. But just when overtime started to seem inevitable, the Janicke brothers gave the Irish the lift they needed. Justin started a sequence that ended in a rebound goal for Trevor that held up as the game-winner, a fitting finish given Jackson’s mantra for the weekend.

“In the offensive zone, you’ve gotta work the puck low to high and get the team spread out. Our guys (are) just willing to pay the price,” Jackson said after the Irish blocked an absurd 24 shots on Friday. “We’ve been blocking shots all year long. They were going low to high, especially later in the game. You’ve gotta be conscious of tips and deflections and getting in shot lanes.”

As for Galajda? “Both (goalies) have played well. But Matt’s been the hot hand recently,” Jackson said about Galajda, who appears to have ended the Irish goalie controversy by stopping 59 of 61 shots (.967 save percentage) over the course of the weekend.

While this weekend was undoubtedly the ceiling of Notre Dame’s regular season, it could be just the beginning if the Irish have anything to say about it. That the Irish can not just play with but outplay a team as talented as Michigan is a complement to the former, not an insult to the latter. And the scary thing is the Irish can still be better. The team swept the Wolverines without sophomore forward Grant Silanoff and sophomore defenseman Zach Plucinzski.

“Hopefully, we get everybody back for the playoffs,” Jackson said, also adding the team’s seemingly non-stop string of injuries has challenged them, especially when it comes to special teams.

And yet despite all of it, here sit the Irish, winners of eight straight heading into the Big Ten tournament, and eventually, the NCAA Tournament. Notre Dame played championship-caliber hockey this weekend. That doesn’t guarantee they’ll be a championship-winning team, of course. But showing you can play at that level is half the battle. The other half is about to start.

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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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