Riding a nine game winning streak, the No. 4 Irish will head to East Lansing this weekend to take on the Michigan State Spartans. After sweeping Minnesota at home this past weekend, the Irish (12-3-1, 6-0-0, Big Ten) find themselves atop the Big Ten conference, which includes four top-25 teams in the national rankings.
Michigan State (7-6-1, 1-4-1, Big Ten) sits at the bottom of the standings within the Big Ten, but the Spartans certainly not to be taken lightly. Despite a lack of conference success, Michigan State is 6-1-0 at home on the season, and according to head coach Jeff Jackson, the Irish will need to put a dent in that record this weekend.
“They’re a much improved program,” Jackson said. “They have only lost one game at home, so we’re going to have our hands full. This is a much improved hockey team from the past years. I think they are really doing a good job in the offensive zone, stretching you out, so you almost have to play the team to really get a true gage of where they are. Their top line is one of the best in college hockey right now offensively, so it’s going to be a challenge. We’re going to have to play smart road hockey, which we’ve done so far this year. We certainly can’t play lightly because if we do, we’ll lose.”
Recent trends have shown the Irish struggling early in games, only scoring one first-period goal in their last three games, a disturbing statistic considering their record is 11-1-1 when scoring first. But despite the slow starts, Notre Dame has persevered and has kept winning, thanks in large part to the superb goaltending of sophomore Cale Morris and the consistency of the defensive corps.
“We haven’t had the best starts, and it’s something we’re addressing. I thought we were better last week on the road with our starts, but we have to find a way to come out with a little more energy,” Jackson said. “Minnesota played with a lot of tempo in their game, so a lot of it is the fact that they’re certainly one of the most talented teams in the country. We were fortunate, especially Friday night, to be able to sustain a 1-0 lead, scoring that early power play goal. But I think playing them is a good benchmark for us, it’s like playing Denver. We’re certainly happy with the results, but I think there are a lot of areas of our game where we were exposed a little bit.”
Despite its abundant success so far, including owning the nation’s longest winning streak, the team remains focused on improving certain areas of its play. Jackson stressed the importance of puck possession, especially against strong teams like Minnesota and Penn State, who aim to outshoot their opponents.
“We just have to keep working on it,” Jackson said on puck possession. “It’s a coordination between our defensemen and forwards. The forwards have to get back to make sure they’re supporting the defense, and then the defense has to get up the ice when the forwards are on the rush. It’s a matter of tightening that gap offensively that is going to allow us to be better at possessing the puck for sustained periods.”
The Irish are fortunate to have quite a few veterans on the squad who are more than capable of tackling these issues. Prominent seniors including captain Jake Evans, Jordan Gross and Dawson Cook all have taken considerable leadership roles on the team this year, and Jackson said he places a considerable amount of confidence in them.
“You know, as a coach, you watch boys grow to men. And that’s what I’m seeing right now with guys like Jake Evans, Jordan Gross and Dawson Cook— they’re growing up,” Jackson said. “These seniors, they’ve been through bad places, and they’ve been through good places, and those experiences certainly help them develop. They know the tricks of the trade, and they hopefully pass some of those tricks to the young guys.
“They take advantage of knowing what they have to do to be successful, whereas in the past they may lose confidence because they can’t do certain things. Now, because of their experience over the last three and a half years, they have a pretty good idea of what they have to do to be successful.”
With Notre Dame’s veteran leadership, the team has been able to grind out tough wins. Nevertheless, Jackson wants to ensure that all team members, especially those who may not see the ice as much, feel a part of that chemistry.
“It’s in a good spot right now,” Jackson said on the team’s chemistry. “The biggest issue that we have to deal with is the guys who aren’t playing. We have a couple of seniors that aren’t playing, we’ve got a number of young guys that are fighting to try to claw into the lineup. We just have to try to make sure we don’t take them for granted, the guys that aren’t in the lineup, and make sure we give them a little bit of extra love — whether it be in practice or post-practice or sitting down with them watching video, whatever it might be. I think it’s really important we keep them engaged. They’re very important to our program, they’re the depth of our team.”
As the team prepares for the second half of its season, the focus remains on improvement. Jackson underscored the value of constant improvement as the season continues and the team vies for a championship run.
“I’m more worried about us getting better,” Jackson said. “Frankly, against Minnesota, we won two games, but they exposed us in some areas with their skill and speed. So we just have to keep on getting better. There are certain parts of our game that we could definitely improve.
“The defensive corps has done a much better job in recent weeks, and I think that is something that can even get better. But, right now, for me, it’s about continuing to work on possessing the puck and working on defensive sticks and things that are going to allow us to possess the puck or create turnovers to possess the puck.”
The Irish will face off against the Spartans at the Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing, Michigan, this Friday and Saturday.