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Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame seeks sweep in final road series of season

The No. 16 Irish play their final regular-season road series this weekend as the team heads to Maine to face the Black Bears.

Notre Dame (15-9-4, 8-5-3 Hockey East) is currently tied for fourth in the Hockey East standings after taking four points in last weekend’s series against Vermont, and, with eight teams separated by just seven points between third and 10th in the conference, sweeping the Black Bears (10-15-3 4-11-1), who sit in second-to-last place, would be a major boost for Notre Dame’s hopes of a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

“The guys know the importance of every game at this point,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “It’s almost playoff hockey right now; for where we want to finish in the league, I think our guys have a pretty good grasp of how tight it is in the league, and one or two points could make the difference between four spots in the standings, so every point matters. We got to go there with the objective to get points in every game.”

Although the Irish were able to come from behind and tie Vermont last Friday night, and then dominate in a 4-1 victory Saturday night, the grind of the season has taken its toll on the team. Sophomore defenseman and power-play specialist Bobby Nardella remains out, and junior forward Anders Bjork and sophomore Joe Wegwerth were not at 100 percent for the series against the Catamounts. But luckily for Jackson and the Irish, with playoff hockey right around the corner, some of the young guys have been stepping up in a major way.

“I think a big part of it is we’re in February now, and I think our young guys are starting to step up, which is really beneficial to the success of our team, guys like [freshman Cam] Morrison and [freshman] Cal Burke and [freshman] Felix Holmberg,” Jackson said. “That really helps our depth, so when we lose guys, especially a guy like Anders [Bjork] and Joe Wegwerth and even on the back end with Bobby Nardella, guys have elevated, and it’s primarily been the younger guys, so when the young guys step up, there’s a lot of guys that took over quality minutes, especially on special teams, penalty kill, things like that. It’s a matter of guys elevating and helping fill those voids. I don’t need to bring it up — I think they know that for us to do well, we’re going to have to have guys step up when those types of things happen.”

One gap the Irish have struggled to plug, however, is the power play. In the two games against Vermont, the Irish only went 1-for-9, and are 1-for-18 in their last five games. While the absence of Nardella has obviously hurt, Jackson still thinks the Irish need to improve beyond that.

“We’re not getting a good enough net-front presence, and we’ve gotta get pucks to the net when we do,” he said. “I don’t think we recognize the difference sometimes. Sometimes we shoot it and we don’t have a good net-front presence; other times we don’t shoot it when we do, so it’s just a matter of the pointmen trying to get shots through to the net, with the shot blocking that goes on nowadays, and then it’s about getting retrievals. Sometimes there are rebounds and it’s a matter of competing for that body position — it’s like a rebound in basketball. So we have to have that aggressiveness with the guys that on the flanks; they have to get inside the defensemen and try to get body position for those rebounds.”

With the injuries and struggles piling up, Jackson hopes that the young players can maintain their presence from last weekend into an important road series.

“I think opportunity is a large part of it,” he said. “[Freshman] Mike O’Leary is a guy who I thought had a coming out party this weekend, and it all happened because of Joe Wegwerth’s injury, unfortunately, but it gave Michael an opportunity to play more minutes. He was not playing center — he was moved to left wing in between periods — but he grabbed a hold of it, and I thought he gave us something, so it’s about opportunity. It’s no different than Cal Burke or [sophomore] Jack Jenkins, guys like that getting a little bit more opportunity to kill penalties, get some power play time, and sometime that gives them confidence, and they run with it, and that’s what you hope happens. There’s always those instances when they get frustrated because they can’t accomplish what they want to, but our underclassmen are starting to come around a bit, and we’ve had pretty consistent production out of some of the upperclassmen, and some of the younger guys now are starting to think they can accomplish more.”

The Irish will face off against Maine at two different arenas this weekend, with the first game on Friday night at 7:05 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, Maine, and the second game on Saturday night at 7:05 p.m.  at the Alfond Arena on Maine’s campus in Orono, Maine.