No. 12 Irish travel to No. 3 Gophers for Big Ten series

The No. 12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s ice hockey team travels to Minneapolis this weekend to take on the No. 3 Minnesota Golden Gophers on Friday and Saturday night. It is the second Big Ten Conference series of the season for both sides, and key points in the standings are up for grabs. 

Series History

Overall, Minnesota leads the series 35-24-5 over 64 games played. The Gophers also lead the series on their home ice 20-13-3. Of late, Minnesota has won seven of the last 10 games between the two teams. Last season they won three of four, including a late-October sweep in Minneapolis. Notre Dame did win the final meeting of the season, though, collecting a 3-2 win on Landon Slaggert’s overtime winner. 

What Notre Dame is trying to do this weekend — sweep Minnesota on the road — has proven to be incredibly challenging. The last time Notre Dame swept the Gophers on the road was during the COVID-19-shortened 2020-21 season. Prior to that, the Irish had not swept a series in Minneapolis since the 1971-72 season. 

Scouting the Gophers

This Minnesota team is — as usual — loaded with talent, and they’ve restocked again this year. With 14 NHL draft picks on the roster, there is no shortage of big names to watch this weekend.

The duo of freshmen Jimmy Snuggerud and Logan Cooley particularly stand out. After being held without a point in the first weekend series, Snuggerud scored a hat trick in his third career game for Minnesota and has been on a tear ever since. He currently leads the team in goals with six and is averaging just over a point per game. Snuggerud was a first-round pick of the St. Louis Blues back in June.

Cooley, 2022 third overall pick of the Arizona Coyotes, has centered Snuggerud’s line so far this year and is also among the team leaders in points with seven. Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Matthew Knies and Montreal Canadiens draftee Rhett Pitlick are two more forwards to keep an eye on.

Despite the depth up front, Minnesota’s points leader so far this year is a defenseman, senior Jackson LaCombe. LaCombe is a true veteran standout, as he is a fourth-year senior and has led all Gophers defensemen in scoring each of the last two seasons. LaCombe, who the Anaheim Ducks drafted 39th overall back in 2019, has three goals and seven assists so far and is well on his way to matching his 30-point season last year.

In goal, senior Justen Close has carried the load. He has played in 7 of 8 games so far this season and has posted a 2.28 goals against average with a .900 save percentage. It’s a fair assumption that he will start both games this weekend.

Like most top-tier programs, Minnesota’s early season schedule has been a rather difficult one. After sweeping Lindenwood to start the season, the Gophers faced top-15 opponents on each of the last three weekends and will face off against their fourth straight top-15 team when the Irish come to town. Minnesota has earned a split in each of those last three series, playing against in-state rival No. 6/7 Minnesota State, historic rival No. 10/11 North Dakota and red-hot No. 9 Ohio State. They enter this weekend with a 5-3-0 overall record.

Scouting the Irish

The veteran Irish come into this weekend with a 4-2-2 record but have struggled to find consistency to start the season.

“I think we are a work in progress, frankly. I don’t think we are on all cylinders yet,” Head coach Jeff Jackson said this week, discussing his team’s start to the season.

Last weekend, Notre Dame opened conference play against Michigan State with a 5-0 win and looked dominant from puck drop to game’s end. The Irish got goals from 5 different scorers in that one, including one from junior Ryder Rolston, who leads the team in goals (4) and points (9). On the following night, though, the Irish offense that flowed so freely the night before was unable to break through. Notre Dame settled for a 1-1 tie. It was just another example that the Irish are still striving for consistency.  

“We still need to find that consistency in our game, because right now, from game to game, I’m not really sure what we’re going to see,” said Jackson.

Looking ahead to this weekend, Notre Dame will certainly rely on the efforts of senior goaltender Ryan Bischel. Bischel has put together a string of strong outings recently. The Minnesota native had a stout performance against Michigan State, during which he stopped 71 of 72 shots across the two-game slate. Bischel has started all of Notre Dame’s games so far, and all indications show that will more or less continue throughout the year. 

Notre Dame will also look to six native Minnesotans this weekend to pitch in while playing in their home state, including graduate student defenseman Ben Brinkman, who spent the previous four seasons playing for the Gophers. Brinkman played 140 games in his Minnesota career, registering 23 points. Brinkman did not play last weekend against Michigan State. 

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