Moller: Keys to success for Irish in the playoffs
Nate Moller | Wednesday, February 23, 2022
The 2022 Big Ten Hockey Tournament is less than two weeks away, and although the Irish have a crucial final regular season series against Michigan this weekend, it’s time to look at the keys to success for the Irish in the Big Ten Tournament and hopefully the NCAA Tournament. The Irish currently sit at ninth in the country, so they should make the NCAA Tournament, assuming they can play decently against Michigan and win their quarterfinal series in the Big Ten Tournament. As far as Big Ten Tournament seeding goes, the Irish will be the fourth or third seed. If they get more than one point against Michigan this weekend, they will earn the three seed.
Here are the keys to success for the Irish as they head into the playoffs:
Goaltending is always the most important aspect of playoff hockey, but for the Irish it is especially important. At times this season, the Irish have had two of the best goaltenders in the country in graduate student Matthew Galajda and junior Ryan Bischel. Both goaltenders have not been consistent, though, and each has had a couple of horrible games this season.
To look at this inconsistency in the net, let’s look at the last month of the season. In a mid-January game against Boston College, Galajda had a career game against Boston College where he made 40 saves and allowed only two goals. Galajda then faltered a week and a half later against Minnesota, getting pulled from the game for Bischel after allowing three goals in the first period.
Bischel would go on to start the next three games, allowing only four goals over that span and playing some of the best hockey of his career. That all changed two weeks ago against Wisconsin, though, when Bischel allowed three goals on just five shots in the first period against Wisconsin. Bischel was then pulled for Galajda, and Galajda has gone on to start the last three games for the Irish, playing sensationally.
I anticipate the Irish sticking it out with Galajda going forward. He has the experience and talent necessary to be successful for the Irish in net, but it will be problematic if he plays like he did against Minnesota this year. Galajda has never played in the NCAA Tournament either, which could be a major concern for the Irish. The goaltender position is definitely an area of concern for the Irish, and they will look to further solidify their starting goaltender in this weekend’s regular season finale against Michigan.
Continued dominance on penalty kills
Arguably the biggest strength of the Irish this season has been the play of their defense on the penalty kill, killing 91.53% of penalties. That penalty kill percentage is good for the third best in the country. Power play goals are huge momentum boosts for teams and being able to kill off penalties in the playoffs will be vital for the Irish. The Irish have proven that they have the defensive unit to tough it out and kill lots of power plays this season, and they will surely be tested going forward. Graduate student Adam Karashik and freshman Jake Boltmann among others have been superb this year, and they will need to continue to play well into the playoffs.
This weekend’s series against Michigan should be a good indicator for how the penalty kill unit will play for the Irish in the playoffs, as the Wolverines boast a top-ten team in power play percentage goals.
Although the Irish have scored 3.47 goals per game and rank seventh in the country in offense, they have gone through spurts this year where it has been difficult for them to score. To see this, let’s look at a run of three games in the middle of January. In the first of these games, the Irish scored only one goal against Ohio State despite having 39 shots on goal. The next game, however, the Irish offense exploded in its best game of the season to score eight goals against Boston College off only 33 shots on goal. Then the following game against Minnesota, the Irish offense cooled off again and only scored one goal on 29 shots.
Although junior forward Max Ellis has been sensational for the Irish this season with 16 goals, the Irish have relied heavily on Ellis’ production throughout the season and have struggled to score at times when he has had an off night. If the Irish are going to go far in the playoffs, they will need to get continued production from seasoned scorers in junior Trevor Janicke, sophomore Landon Slaggert, sophomore Ryder Rolston, junior Jesse Lansdell and senior Graham Slaggert as well. Having this depth and having a variety of scorers in the playoffs could be what determines the success of the Irish this season.
No lapses in play
For whatever reason, this team has had a few games where they just simply don’t show up. Whether it was their 3-2 loss to RIT, 3-1 loss to Niagara, 4-1 loss to Ohio State, 5-1 loss to Minnesota or 5-3 loss to Wisconsin, the Irish team just did not look like themselves in those games. Being motivated to play in the playoffs shouldn’t be an issue, and I anticipate the Irish showing up for every game, but if they have one of these letdown games in the playoffs, their playoff run will be short lived.
What to expect in the playoffs
The Irish can be one of the best teams in the country if everything comes together at the right time. I anticipate the Irish winning their quarterfinal series in the Big Ten Tournament and then having a great chance at winning their semifinal game too. They simply don’t have the consistency to make a run at the Big Ten title, though. In the NCAA Tournament, the Irish should have the talent to win their opening game, but I don’t see them advancing to the Frozen Four because of the lack of consistency among this team.