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Irish ride Compton crowds, defense in resurgent season

| Friday, May 13, 2022

Last season was a tough year for every sports team. But it felt like most of the Notre Dame hockey team‘s struggles were specifically attributed to COVID-19. The Irish uncharacteristically struggled in an uncharacteristically empty home rink. They didn‘t seem to have a clear identity. And the Irish didn‘t even get to enjoy the fruits of their NCAA tournament berth, as their 2020-21 season ended with a COVID-induced whimper. They forfeited a potential first-round matchup against Boston College.

But everything that went wrong last season for the Irish felt like it was righted in 2021-22. A lack of crowds kept the Irish from gaining momentum at home a year ago, finishing just 5-11-1 at home. With fans and the Irish band back to, as head coach Jeff Jackson said, “creat[ing] such a great environment in the building, and I certainly believe it has a huge impact on creating momentum,” Notre Dame soared to a 17-6 record at Compton Family Ice Arena. That included a best-of-three series win over Wisconsin in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. That avenged 2021‘s early exit when they lost in the first round.

Defense sparks strong postseason push

That, along with their solid regular season and all of the success the Irish earned this year, came from a rock-solid defense. The Irish allowed just over 28 shots per game. They lead the Big Ten with 2.05 goals against per game. And most impressively, they owned a historically dominant penalty kill. That unit finished first in the NCAA at over 90%. The Irish penalty kill controlled play so well that they actually nearly scored as many goals (7) down a man as they allowed (11). In the NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame suffered no early forfeit. Rather, the Irish came within a single win of reaching the Frozen Four.

“I think our guys were thrilled with that opportunity,” said Jackson. “It was a tough finish to our season last year. I think that was a bit of an incentive to get back to that situation. It was good. We actually played pretty well there. We did a lot of positive things. I had a feeling that this team could be one of those teams that was a Frozen Four team. But we got beat by a pretty good team in Minnesota State. But it was frustrating not to be able to find that finish, that goal-scoring, right at the end.”

Notre Dame certainly made strong initial pushes in both the B10 and NCAA Tournaments, building off a strong regular season that saw them finish third in the conference. But as Jackson said, they just couldn‘t find enough timely scoring to advance. The Irish lost in the B10 semis 2-1 to a Michigan team they beat in all four regular-season meetings. The Irish knocked off Notre Dame in a low-scoring 2-1 overtime thriller. But then Notre Dame dropped a 1-0 heartbreaker to Minnesota St. in the Albany Regional Final.

Graduate transfers, goaltenders boost success

After stagnating a bit over the last two seasons, Jackson said the Irish felt they ”needed to get older.” So for the first time in Jackson‘s 17 years at Notre Dame, the Irish brought in some graduate transfers. They came away with four players crucial to their success.

“The impact they had, not just on the ice but off the ice as well, they brought a certain element as far as maturity and positive outlooks,” Jackson said.

None was more important than goaltender Matthew Galajda. The Cornell transfer made up one-half of one of the best tandems in the nation alongside junior Ryan Bischel. The Irish had a big hole to fill in net after Dylan St. Cyr, who owned a stellar .921 save percentage last year, transferred to Quinnipiac. Galajda and Bischel did that and then some.

“They probably didn‘t get the recognition they were due [individually] just because they split [the net] most of the year. Going in, Galajda had a better resume, and I think he really showed that in the last couple months of the year. But I think that Bischel took a big step forward. And the fact that Galajda was here pushed him to another level, which really bodes well for [Bischel] and for us next year.”

If Bischel could be next year‘s breakout star, there‘s no doubt that this year was junior right winger Max Ellis. Ellis had just six goals in 30 career games entering the year. But he exploded for 16 goals in the first 26 games of the season. “He made a good off-season effort last summer to get strong physically,” said Jackson about the 5‘9“ forward. Jackson confirmed that Ellis was “pretty dinged up” in the second half. That explains the sharp decline in his offensive numbers down the stretch. But Ellis undoubtedly enjoyed a career year in 2021-22.

Irish must replace top talent

Unfortunately for the Irish, it will also be Ellis‘ last season in the NCAA after signing his entry-level deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. And he isn‘t the only notable player leaving. Galajda won‘t be back next season. Nor will senior forward Graham Slaggert, who signed with the AHL‘s Toronto Marlies. Senior defenseman Spencer Stastney signed with the team who drafted him, the Nashville Predators. Graduate student defensemen Adam Karashik and Chase Blackmun also won‘t be back next season, with the former signing with the AHL‘s Lehigh Valley Phantoms. That‘s Notre Dame‘s top center, leading scorer, starting goalie, and three of their top four defensemen leaving South Bend. When asked how the Irish will fill those voids, Jackson said the team has options.

“A number of guys in our sophomore class and junior class [took a step forward this season],” said Jackson. “I think those two young guys that started the year with big Jack [Adams] really took a step the last couple months of the year. I thought Hunter Strand and Justin Janicke [the two players next to Adams], as freshmen, really started showing signs of being the type of players we think they‘re gonna be in their time here.”

And it‘s not like all is lost. Key players senior defenseman Nick Leivermann, sophomore forwards Ryder Rolston and Landon Slaggert, and more are set to return. And the Irish certainly won‘t be the only ones losing talent. After plateauing for a couple of seasons, a strong 2021-2022 has the Irish back on the rise.

“We‘re just excited about next year, even though we‘re losing a fair amount, we are bringing in a number of good players, and I‘m excited by the guys who are returning,” Jackson said. “It should be another good year for Irish hockey.”

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About Andrew McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is a senior in Siegfried Hall and Sports Editor of The Observer. He is from Haddonfield, New Jersey, and loves all of his Philly sports teams, even if they don't always love him back. Reach out below or on Twitter (@_AndrewMcG) to talk sports or TV shows, especially if they're Stranger Things, Survivor, Abbott Elementary or/and Severance.

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