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Irish prepare to meet Spartans in Big Ten opener

Throughout the first month of the season, Fighting Irish hockey has become well-acquainted with The Great Lakes State. Having already squared off with Northern Michigan and Western Michigan, Notre Dame now turns its attention to the Michigan State Spartans. This weekend’s series in South Bend will usher in Big Ten action, marking the first of twelve series on both teams’ conference slates. The matchup will also serve as a crucial segue for the 12th-ranked Irish, whose seven games to follow are against teams rated above them.

Michigan State: From the Ground Up

After losing 15 out of 16 games to end the 2021-22 season, the Spartans are off to a promising start. Under head coach Adam Nightingale, they enter with a 4-2-0 record — all against unranked opponents. The Spartans split a home-and-away series with Bowling Green to open the campaign, then split with UMass-Lowell and swept Long Island on home ice. Last weekend, MSU dominated both ends of the two-game series, handling the Sharks 3-1 on Friday and 8-4 on Saturday. Defense was the story of game one, as the Spartans limited LIU to just 15 shots on goal. Saturday saw Michigan State crank out eight goals for the first time in nine years, pummeling the visitors with 50 shots on goal. Senior forward Jagger Joshua registered his first career hat trick, and the Spartan power play scored four times in seven opportunities. On the weekend, seven of MSU’s eleven goal-contributors were first-time scorers.

In a limited sample size, Michigan State’s offense is clicking. The Spartans, on average, are outshooting opponents 37.7 to 23.3, and outscoring them 3.3 to 2.5. They have racked up at least 39 shots on goal in four of six games, and have yet to allow more than 30 shots on goal in a game. MSU’s top forward line consists of two freshmen in addition to Joshua, but the newcomers have been magnificent in adjusting to the college game. Daniel Russell leads the team with nine points, while Karsen Dorwart has already amassed five assists. All six players on their second and third forward lines have over 60 games of collegiate experience, while MSU’s top three defensemen have combined to play 397 NCAA games. 

Between the pipes, graduate student Dylan St. Cyr is an undersized, yet effective goaltender. He stands at just 5-foot-8, but is coming off a spectacular season at Quinnipiac, in which he posted a .936 save percentage and 1.16 goals against average. St. Cyr is also no stranger to Compton Family Ice Arena. He started 30 games for the Fighting Irish between 2017 and 2021. This Spartans team is much improved from last year’s debacle, already producing noticeably better results in the non-conference schedule. Their combination of youthful skill and well-documented experience should serve them well in South Bend and beyond.

Notre Dame: A Need for Consistency

Notre Dame’s opponents between November 4-23 are ranked, on average, sixth in the country. The Irish (3-2-1) cannot expect to easily create rhythm against the big dogs, so the time is now for them to build some serious momentum. They started the year with uncertainty, as they lost handily to third-ranked Denver and needed a wild comeback to tie Air Force, but then rattled off three straight wins over Northern Michigan and Western Michigan. The thrill of Friday’s 2-0 defeat of the 17th-ranked Broncos quickly turned sour in a rough, 4-0 loss on Saturday. Western Michigan outshot the Irish 38-22 in game two, peppering the visitors with 29 shots on goal through two periods. Though Notre Dame has struggled on the road (0-2-1), they are still a perfect 3-0-0 in South Bend, favoring a resurgent effort this weekend.

One season has made quite the difference for the Irish penalty kill. After posting one of the best kill percentages in college hockey last year, Notre Dame has survived just 74.1 percent of opposing power plays. In the 4-0 loss to WMU, the Irish asked for trouble by making four trips to the penalty box before receiving a single man advantage. Junior forward Ryder Rolston’s three goals and six points lead the team, and his 28 shots are twice the amount of the next-highest shooter. Graduate student forward Chayse Primeau has arrived from Omaha on a mission, tallying five points and winning an impressive 59.3 percent of face-offs. Should their production carry into conference play, Notre Dame will be well-prepared to shine in big games.

On the defensive end, junior Drew Bavaro has stepped up with four assists, while sophomore Ryan Helliwell has been reliable with a team-best +5 plus-minus. Senior goaltender Ryan Bischel’s performance will make for an intriguing matchup in net. Bischel pitched a shutout last Friday and collected 31 saves in Saturday’s loss, bringing his season save percentage to a fine .913 mark. 

Series History and Statistics 

Notre Dame and Michigan State have appeared in 36 combined national tournaments and 13 Frozen Fours. Since Notre Dame joined the Big Ten prior to the 2017-18 season, the Irish lead the series 13-5 with four ties. However, Michigan State has tightened up the margin over the last three seasons, as Notre Dame is just 5-4-4 against the Spartans during that time frame. Last year, the teams split the South Bend leg before Notre Dame earned a sweep in East Lansing. After this weekend’s bout, the two will meet again at Munn Ice Arena on Feb. 3 and 4.

Contact Tyler Reidy at treidy3@nd.edu

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