Notre Dame hockey takes to the ice to start their official season on Friday Oct. 7 against defending National Champion Denver at 9 p.m., and then Air Force at 8 p.m. the next day. The two games are part of the Ice Breaker Tournament, an invitational tournament that invites four of the country’s best to start the collegiate season.
The matchup between Denver and Notre Dame happened almost by accident, according to head coach Jeff Jackson.
“We owed Air Force to go out there, and [head coach] Frank Serratore asked me if, in lieu of us coming out there to play them two games, would we play in the Ice Breaker, so I said yes. At the time a couple of years ago, when I made that agreement with them when they came in here for two, I did not realize we’d be playing Denver the first night, nor did I realize that Denver would be the reigning national champs.”
The two games will serve as a measuring stick for the Irish, who in national pre-season polling ranked 11th in the country, behind St. Cloud State and ahead of Harvard.
The team that Notre Dame is bringing back this year shares some similarities to the squad that made the NCAA tournament as an at-large team, but Jackson has noticed some key differences.
“There are some similarities to last year’s team, but this group so far…they go hard in practice, they are an impressive group…We are bigger than I remember us and just as fast.”
The speed and size are not the only pieces Jackson noticed. This year’s team features a hunger that last year’s team did not.
“Any time you don’t get to the Frozen Four or win a championship, yeah, there should be some hunger. They were close. That team was very close to getting to the Frozen Four, and anytime you get there, anything is possible. And that core of that team is back.”
The hunger that Jackson noticed in his team came from the squad’s shortcomings in the NCAA Regional Finals last year. After Notre Dame beat North Dakota in OT 2-1, the team faced Minnesota State in the Regional Finals. The Irish ultimately came up short against the Mavericks in a hard-fought game, with the Mavericks advanced to the Frozen Four National Championship game, where they then lost to Denver.
Coach Jackson praised the team’s overall depth, highlighting some new defensive players who would bolster the team’s defense.
One such player was Ben Brinkman, a grad student defensman who transferred from Minnesota to play for the Irish. Brinkman, drafted by the Dallas Stars in 2019, was a cornerstone of the Gophers’ defense, playing in 140 games during his time at Minnesota.
The other transfer mentioned, junior Drew Bavaro, transferred from Bentley. Bavaro was a huge part of the Bentley offense, boasting nine goals and leading the team in assists with 27 points.
Jackson also highlighted a few returning core defensive players. The first mentioned was Grad Student Nick Leiverman, who played in 34 games, earning 27 points and a second team-best plus/minus of 16.
The next player mentioned was junior Zach Plucinski. While Plucinski may not have Bavaro or Leiverman’s statistical resume, he played in 32 games for the Irish last season.
The last player mentioned by Jackson was sophomore Jake Boltmann, who was one of only six Irish players to play in 40 games last season.
The talented roster has ensured that there will be a deep bench for the Irish, and according to Jackson, it might lead to some competition.
“There’s going to be a fight for playing time back there because we actually have nine defensemen, and I think pretty much all of them can play.”
Diving into the numbers from last season, the Irish have much to replace from last year’s teams. The players who graduated from ND last year accounted for 35.2% (45) of the goals scored by the team. The same was true for assists; the Irish have lost 34.2% (79) assists from last season’s roster. That adds to a loss of 3.34 points per game, a dramatic production loss.
The Irish also lost a lot of clutch play after graduation. Of the 28 game-winning goals the Irish had last season, the seniors scored nine.
The Irish losses will also impact the special team’s play. Last year’s class accounted for 28% of the Irish power-play goals. That is not great for a team that ranked 31st in the power play last season with a 19.1% conversion rate. Short-handed goals took the biggest hit of all; the Irish are returning a total of 0 short-handed goals from last season.
Where will the replacement production come from? Maybe grad transfers Ben Brinkman, Jackson Pierson and Chayse Priemau. Add in Drew Bavaro for good measure.
Pierson, Primeau and Bavaro contributed power-play goals on their teams last year, and could easily see some minutes on the power-play unity. And Pierson and Bavaro both had short-handed goals last season, showing they can spend some time on the kill.
Combining the stats of the four transfer students, they had 31 combined goals and 51 assists for a total of 82 points. That totals out to 2.45 points per game, which is not the 3.34 points per game lost, but it certainly gets the Irish closer.
Beyond the general increases in productivity that one would expect from classes progressing, junior forward Landon Slaggert, preseason first-team all BigTen, and Nick Leivermann should be two major forces for the Irish.
Where the Irish fall
In a Big Ten pre-season Coaches poll, the favorite to win the conference were the Minnesota Golden Gophers, with Notre Dame finishing in second. Minnesota is an incredibly talented hockey team with national championship potential. The Golden Gophers were just one of five teams to earn votes in the USCHO pre-season rankings and finished second overall, just behind the Denver Pioneers. While not a certainty, it feels incredibly likely that Minnesota should win the conference regular season title.
Behind them should be Michigan. Michigan was CHN’s number one overall team last season, and while they did not win the title, the Wolverines are bringing back a solid team that can compete with Minnesota, but should finish in second place.
Notre Dame has the potential to break into the top two, but it seems more likely that the Irish will finish in third.
Ohio State, who finished just five points behind Notre Dame in the standings last year, should continue to be a tough competitor. The Buckeyes should be step for step with the Irish competing for third behind the goaltending of Jakub Dobes.
Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State are the conference’s dark horses, all with potential but not immediate threats to the Irish.
Contact Tom Zwiller at email@example.com.