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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Irish set for final regular season road series at MSU

One week ago, Notre Dame hockey (20-8-0, 12-6-0-4-0-0 B10) couldn’t have been any hotter. The Irish were winners of six straight, coming off a convincing sweep of Penn State by a combined margin of 10-2. Other than a final weekend series against Michigan, the Irish were in prime position to coast into the B10 Tournament with home-ice advantage in the first round.

The last part of that still remains true — the Irish still sit comfortably in fourth place in the B10. But the Irish were thrown off by their Thursday-Friday series last week against Wisconsin being pushed back to Saturday-Sunday due to COVID concerns with the Badgers. Two goals in the final two minutes of the belated series opener Saturday chased junior goaltender Ryan Bischel from the net after just twenty minutes. Meanwhile, Wisconsin goaltender Jared Moe stood on his head, stopping 38 shots and leading Wisconsin to a 5-3 win despite being outshot 41-15. The Irish also outshot Wisconsin 26-13 in the final two periods Sunday, jumping out to an early 2-0 lead that was pressured but never relinquished, leading to an eventual 3-2 Irish victory.

Still, it was a bit stunning to see an Irish team that has looked so in control as of late struggle against a Wisconsin team that had lost six straight entering the series. This is especially stunning since the Irish and Badgers would play each other in the first round of the B10 tournament if the season started today (though Wisconsin is just one point ahead of sixth-place Penn State and three up on seventh-place Michigan State). And while it’s easy to dismiss some of that as a one-off, one long-term implication from the series is the re-opening of the Irish starting netminder battle. Just when Bischel looked to be settling in as the starter, graduate student Matthew Galajda stepped in for him after the first period Saturday and allowed just three goals on forty-one shots, a sparkling .927 save percentage.

Next up on the schedule for the Irish is a two-game swing in East Lansing, Notre Dame’s final road series of the regular season. The Irish split their first series this season with the Michigan State Spartans (11-18-1, 5-15-0-0-0-0 B10) on Dec. 10-11 (their final games of 2021). This includes their lone shutout loss this season, a 1-0 OT defeat in the second contest. All three Irish goals that series came from their backend, with senior defenseman Spencer Stastney recording his first collegiate multi-goal game and senior defenseman Nick Leivermann, who has missed Notre Dame’s last six games, adding the game-winner. With a 3-2 win in the first game of that series they erased an early 2-0 deficit. Michigan State’s Mitchell Lewandowski scored the lone goal 33 seconds into overtime in the second contest, giving the Spartans their only OT and second shutout victory of the season.

While the Spartans sit in an assuming last-place spot in the Big Ten standings, there are a few players the Irish need to keep their eyes on.

“They’re really stingy defensively,” said head coach Jeff Jackson, who called the Spartans “a similar opponent to Wisconsin.”

A good goaltender makes any hockey team a dangerous one, and the Spartans have a great one in Drew DeRidder. DeRidder’s .929 save percentage is top-fifteen in the entire country, earning him a nomination for the Mike Richter Award for the nation’s best goaltender. After a weekend where the Irish probably deserved to score more goals than they actually did, don’t be surprised if that’s the case again with Michigan State.

The Spartans also have a fairly deep offensive attack, with 11 players reaching double-digits in points. Only one Spartan has reached that number in goals, though — forward Jeremy Davidson. He’s also the team’s leader with 21 points. Just behind him in scoring is as pure a playmaker as they come he’s got 2 goals but 17 assists, the type of drastic split you rarely see from a forward. Dennis Cesana, MSU’s leader in scoring among defensemen with 14 points, was the only player to record multiple points in the first ND-MSU series of the season.

The Irish struggled to score against the Spartans in their first series this season, and it won’t be any easier this time around, especially since the team might not be at full strength. Leivermann remained out through last weekend, and Jackson noted two more players went down in Sunday's game.

“We’ve got a number of guys that are day-to-day,” Jackson said. “They’re nagging type of injuries. We just have to work through it.” Jackson also mentioned “three or four players” are currently playing with injuries “that they’re not in any danger of making it worse.”

It’s a difficult challenge to navigate, but Notre Dame’s outstanding depth makes it a bit easier.

“Depth is everything,” Jackson said, highlighting the performance of players like senior defenseman Charlie Raith and freshman forward Tyler Carpenter who have stepped in for injured players and played well. Fourteen Irish players have reached double-digit points this year, with four passing the twenty mark.

Just because Notre Dame is likely locked into the number four seed in the Big Ten doesn’t mean they’ll be pulling any punches this weekend or next.

“It’s not just moving up in the standings, it’s about our national rankings, too,” said Jackson. “We’re playing not just for our conference championship, but we’re also playing also for the national picture. I’m putting more focus on that we’re playing our best hockey at this time of the year. Making sure we’re cleaning up the areas of our game that need to be improved, and try to make sure we take advantage of the strengths we have.”

The Irish will have a chance to do just that against the Spartans when the puck drops at Munn Ice Arena on February 18 and 19 at 7 p.m. Both games can be streamed on Big Ten Plus.