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Sports

Irish hockey looks to continue success vs. Michigan in conference semifinal

| Friday, March 11, 2022

Perhaps nothing shows just how far the Irish hockey team (26-9-0, 16-6-0-4-0-0 B10) have come this year, especially compared to the last two seasons where they were a pedestrian 29-28-9, like their record against the Michigan Wolverines (27-9-1, 16-8-0-0-3-0). Holding your own against a Michigan team stacked with the first, second, fourth and fifth overall picks from last year’s NHL Draft, one that went 16-4-0 against the rest of the conference, is a feat itself. Sweeping the four-game season series? That’s almost unthinkable.

Yet that’s exactly what the Irish did this regular season. Notre Dame held a Michigan offense that averages four goals a game to two or less in three of their four meetings. Yes, three of those games were decided by one goal. Both of the two games in Ann Arbor even went to overtime. But the Irish found a way to win each time, and while their play may not have been flawless, it certainly was effective.

“We had good goaltending and we defended well and did some good things on transition offensively, but I think we probably could’ve possessed the puck more coming out of our zone and coming through the neutral zone, and even more specifically, in the o-zone,“ head coach Jeff Jackson said. “[Michigan] and Minnesota are probably the most skilled teams in the Big Ten. If you’re defending all the time, you’re gonna break down, and I thought we defended well.“

While the Irish were outshot 131-116 in the season series against Michigan, that isn’t a significant difference across four games when considering that Notre Dame spent the majority of the season series in the lead, and therefore, naturally on the defensive. And without their second meeting of the season back on Nov. 20, the Irish actually outshot Michigan 95-91 this season. Michigan certainly had their chances, but the Irish did, too. And Notre Dame shouldn’t apologize for doing a better job of capitalizing on those than Michigan.

But the Wolverines have the opportunity to make a lot of people forget about that in this Big 10 Tournament semifinal meeting. And while the Irish certainly have the head-to-head advantage, Michigan is undoubtedly the hotter team. The Wolverines dismantled No. 7 seed Michigan State in the tournament’s opening round. The Wolverines outscored their in-state rivals 12-1, including an 8-0 dismantling to eliminate the Spartans from the tournament.

Notre Dame’s first-round series was a little bit dicier. Game 1 against Wisconsin was a terrible puck luck game, as Notre Dame peppered Wisconsin goaltender Jared Moe with a whopping 52 shots, yet came away 3-1 losers. The Irish were on the verge of an early exit when they let an early 2-0 lead slip away in Game 2. Just when overtime looked necessary, junior right winger Trevor Janicke one-timed a feed from senior defenseman Spencer Stastney with just 20.7 seconds left in regulation.

The Irish played their best game of the season in the do-or-die Game 3. The Irish outshot Wisconsin 33-26 and led from 11:12 into the first period, when graduate student right-winger Jack Adams chipped a bad-angle shot through Moe, through the end of the game. Notre Dame’s special teams flipped the script in the Wisconsin series. Their usually stout penalty kill was beaten twice in Game 2 (finishing the series a solid 8/10). The powerplay looked as good as it has all season, tallying in all three contests. The unit went 3-13 (23.1%), much better than their regular-season rate (19.4%).

If the Irish are going to continue their success this season against Michigan, it has to start from the net out. Graduate student goaltender Matthew Galajda has firmly taken control of the starter’s role for the Irish. However, it was Ryan Bischel in net for both of Notre Dame’s two road games against the Wolverines back in November. Galajda did start and was stellar in the regular-season ending series against Michigan at Compton; he stopped 59 of 61 shots (.967 SV%) in that series. He also had a strong .921% save percentage in the Wisconsin series. The Mike Richter Award nominee is playing his best hockey at the most important time of the year.

What the Irish lack in high-end talent relative to the Wolverines, they can make up for with their depth. Perhaps the most impressive part about Notre Dame’s victory over Wisconsin is they pulled it out without a single point from their leading scorer, junior right winger Max Ellis. Whether it was the Slaggert brothers (senior center Graham and sophomore left winger Landon) striking for all three of Notre Dame’s PPGs, the fourth line ending the scoring in Game 2 and starting it in Game 3, or junior center Jake Pivonka scoring his first goal in 19 games this season, the Irish are a difficult team, even for a defense with as much talent as Michigan’s, to match up against.

But just what will it take for the Irish to take down Michigan when it matters more than ever?

“We may not have the overall skill that Michigan has, but we can certainly possess the puck collectively, and that’s probably how we have to play against teams like Michigan or Minnesota in the NCAA Tournament,“ Jackson said. “It’s about making good puck decisions. You have to show patience and poise. Not every player has that. When we get in trouble, that’s where the problem is.“

Notre Dame’s patience was certainly tested against Wisconsin; from Moe’s unbelievable goaltending in Game 1 to the nailbiting conclusions to Games 2 and 3, the Irish showed they certainly have that trait in their game. Being able to display against a team as talented as Michigan is a different challenge, however.

Notre Dame will soon have the chance to show they are up for that challenge. The Irish and Wolverines meet in the Big 10 Tournament Semifinals at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor. Game 1 will be on Saturday at 6:30 PM. Start times and broadcast information for Games 2 and 3 have not yet been announced.

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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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