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Sunday, May 26, 2024
The Observer

No. 10 Irish set to begin first-ever Big Ten campaign

After opening the season with an eight game non-conference home slate, the tenth-ranked Irish will finally hit the road this weekend to take on No. 16 Ohio State in Notre Dame’s first ever Big Ten series.

Mackenzi Marinovich | The Observer
Irish senior forward Jake Evans carries the puck up the ice during Notre Dame’s 6-4 loss to Omaha on Oct. 26.

After three seasons in the Hockey East, the Irish (4-3-1, 0-0 Big Ten) move to the Big Ten this season to face some of the biggest schools in the Midwest, including traditional rival Michigan. For head coach Jeff Jackson, the conference is on the rise.

“I expect the Big Ten, whether it’s this year or future years, to be the dominant league in the country,” he said. “The National Conference has been for the last two or three years, but I think that the Big Ten will certainly rival them this year, and potentially even be better next year. But there’s only seven teams, and when you only have seven programs and they’re all pretty high-profile programs in the same conference, there’s no easy games, there’s no bottom dwellers. There will be, but maybe a lot of .500 teams.”

According to Jackson, for Notre Dame one of the biggest adjustments will be getting used to playing on the road in some big arenas, starting this weekend against the Buckeyes (5-1-2, 1-1).

“For our coaching staff it’s kind of familiar surroundings, it’s not that big of a difference for us. I think for our players it’s going to be different,” Jackson said. “In Hockey East there were a lot of good programs and good buildings but there weren’t buildings that were intimidating like Yost Arena [of Michigan] or Mariucci [of Minnesota] or Wisconsin’s building [Kohl Center], Penn State’s [Pegula Ice Arena]. They have some pretty intense buildings, and I think our guys are excited and energized about playing in some of these places, so it’s going to be a fun experience for them.

“ … It’s going to be acclimating to the new surroundings, things like the bounces off the boards and the fan impact, the ice conditions — all those things play into when you’re playing in buildings you’ve never played in before.”

But with such a heavy contingent of players who have grown up in the Midwest, the team is excited for playing in many of the guys’ backyards.

“We have a lot of Minnesota kids, so they’re excited they get to play in Minnesota, we have a lot of Midwestern kids, whether they be from Michigan or the Midwest, any teams from this area, their families are going to be able to come and watch them play,” Jackson said. “We may even have fans that go to some of the locations, so I think it’s exciting just from the profile of the programs. It’s no different than football when they play Michigan, it’s a big deal; when they play Ohio State, it’s a big deal.”

While the Irish have shown flashes over the start of the season, Notre Dame have yet to win two straight since a season-opening sweep of Alabama–Huntsville. While Notre Dame has struggled with injuries, notably to junior forwards Andrew Oglevie and Joe Wegwerth, Jackson said the Irish need to develop more consistency to compete in a conference as competitive as the Big Ten.

“There was just a lack of consistency over the last few weeks,” he said. “I think injuries have played into that and I don’t usually use that as an excuse, but when you’re losing top line guys, it certainly has an impact on everything — not just your lines, your power plays, your penalty kill all those things.

“You have to get acclimated to it, and now we’ve had a week without Oglevie, maybe we’re a little bit better prepared than we were a week ago, but the same thing with Wegwerth, when you’ve got guys that are out, it just shifts everything around a little bit. You hope that other guys elevate and find a way to maybe show something to keep them in the lineup or keep them on a better line on the power play.”

Against Omaha last weekend, the Irish fought back from a 6-4 opening loss to win 5-4 in the rubber match. Jackson said his team’s matchups with tough teams, including defending national champions Denver, give the young Irish some good experiences moving forwards.

“Omaha gave us a good test last week, that was probably good preparation for Ohio State,” he said. “There are some similarities between the two teams, good teams tend to play the same way so I expect those games have probably helped us. Hopefully we’ve learned from some of the mistakes we’ve made in some of the games we’ve had non-conference, and frankly it’s not a bad thing to get on the road. When you’re at home for such a long stretch, everything becomes a little monotonous.

“We have to go through different types of experiences for these guys to learn, and one of them is going to be playing on the road. We’ve had the luxury of having home games … On the other side of it though, we’ve got some younger guys that will be playing, but the guys that play the key moments and key situations are more experienced.

“You hope that they are prepared for the challenges, not just playing on the road, but Ohio State was in the NCAA tournament last year, right now they probably have the best record of any team in the Big Ten, so they’re a team that’s going to challenge for the conference championship. I think there could be any of four or five teams that are going to challenge for it, it’s going to be that close. It’s going to be a tough test for us and we just have to understand that we are going to have to play a certain way to be successful in any games we play in the conference.”