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Moller: Irish aren’t ready to compete for Big Ten title

| Wednesday, February 2, 2022

In a previous column I wrote a couple of months ago, I stated that Notre Dame hockey was ready to contend for a Big Ten title this season. As is usually the case, it seems that I have overestimated the abilities of the Irish, because it doesn’t look like this Irish team is quite ready to compete for a Big Ten title this season.

The games so far this season have shown the inconsistencies in the Irish that will prevent them from winning the Big Ten title. Despite having some convincing victories, the Irish have also lost 3-1 to Niagara, 4-1 to Ohio State and 5-1 to Minnesota so far in 2022. Losses are inevitable in hockey, but losing games in that fashion are unacceptable.

The 3-1 loss to Niagara to open the calendar year was an early indicator of the flaws in the Irish. Niagara has an abysmal 8-16-2 record on the season, and they have an 0-4 record against other Big Ten opponents this season, getting outscored by a 20-4 margin.

In that game against Niagara, the Irish did not deserve to win either, as both teams had the same amount of shots on goal. It is certainly possible that the team was a bit rusty after the holidays and New Year’s Eve, but championship teams do not have off-days like the Irish showed in that loss.

The Irish were able to come back the next day and win 5-0 and put up an astounding 44 shots on goal. While it was great to see the team rebound from a disappointing loss, the Niagara series shows just how inconsistent the Irish can be. One loss in the regular season isn’t a big deal, but it is troubling when the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments come around.

After getting a series sweep against Penn State, the Irish traveled to Columbus to play Ohio State in a pivotal Big Ten series. Game one went great for the Irish and they managed to earn a victory in overtime, but in game two, they were outplayed and lost 4-1. Once again, the inconsistencies in the team were apparent.

The Irish outshot the Buckeyes 39-22 in that game, making the loss even more demoralizing. It seemed like every time the Irish nearly scored, the Buckeyes would find a way to net an unexpected goal. Junior goaltender Ryan Bischel was one of the main reasons the Irish lost that game, saving just 18 of 22 shots on goal.

The Irish then traveled back home to take on Boston College, and they put on one of their best performances of the season, beating the Eagles by a convincing score of 8-2. Young stars and veterans stepped up for the Irish, and it looked as if the Irish had finally found their groove and their goaltender in graduate student Matthew Galajda.

And then this past Friday against Minnesota happened. In a pivotal game against a top-ten opponent, the Irish simply were unmotivated and lackluster on the ice. Galajda had arguably his worst performances of his career and was pulled in the middle of the first period after giving up three goals, the team failed to possess the puck even when on the power play, Minnesota’s transition offense exploited the Irish defense, and the Irish simply were not fast enough to keep up with the Gophers. The 5-1 loss on Friday affirmed to me that while this team can be very good, they are far too inconsistent to be a great team. Great college hockey teams don’t have games like Friday that are just outright ugly.

Of course, in typical 2022 Notre Dame hockey fashion, the Irish bounced back from Friday’s abysmal performance to beat the Gophers 3-2 in overtime in the series finale on Saturday.

Splitting the remaining series is not going to be enough for the Irish down the stretch, especially if they want to improve their position in the Big Ten tournament. The Irish currently sit four points back from Minnesota, nine from Ohio State and thirteen from Michigan with just eight games left to play. It should be noted that the Irish do have two games in hand on Ohio State and three on Michigan. The Irish have series remaining against the Big Ten bottom dwellers of Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State — so anything is possible going forward — but the team has a lot of ground to make up in the coming weeks.

If the Irish are going to go on a run over the last couple of weeks of the season and get back into the Big Ten title picture, they are going to have to solidify a goaltender going forward. Both Galajda and Bischel have looked great at times, but they have also had games with notable struggles. Both goaltenders currently have a save percentage of .922, which is by no means bad, but there can’t be games where three goals are scored in a matter of minutes.

The defense must be more consistent for the Irish as well over the rest of the season. The carelessness that the team had with the puck on Friday and their inability to defend some of the country’s top skaters are notable concerns. The good news for the Irish is that they currently are best in the nation on the penalty kill, killing off a fantastic 92.93% of penalties.

All in all, this team has a ton of talent, and on a good day, they could very well be one of the best teams in the country. Unfortunately, they simply don’t have the consistency necessary to compete for a Big Ten title, and their weaknesses are likely to be exploited even more as the postseason approaches.

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About Nate Moller

Nate is a junior majoring in chemical engineering. He is originally from a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota and is currently living in Siegfried Hall. Some of his passions include running, cross country skiing, and getting too worked up about Notre Dame and Minnesota sports teams.

Contact Nate