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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame seeks breakout weekend against No. 2 Minnesota

For the first time in five weeks, Big Ten hockey returns to Compton Family Ice Arena this weekend. Notre Dame, unranked for the first time this year, will host conference frontrunner Minnesota in a key two-game series. The Fighting Irish (10-10-2, 4-6-1-1) sit in fifth place with 15 points, while the Golden Gophers (16-6-0, 10-2-0-0) hold a comfortable lead with 30 points. No. 5 Penn State and No. 8 Ohio State currently trail by eight and nine points, respectively. Minnesota previously handed Notre Dame its only sweep of the season back in early November.

Minnesota’s mastery of the Irish

No team has dominated Notre Dame over a two-game stretch this year quite like Minnesota did on November 4-5. The Golden Gophers cruised to 4-0 and 3-1 victories, outshooting the Irish 85-46 and striking for three special teams goals. Minnesota clamped down defensively, limiting Irish forwards junior Ryder Rolston and senior Trevor Janicke — the team’s leading scorers — to four total shots. Offensively, Minnesota’s top two goal scorers burned the Irish all weekend. Freshman forward Jimmy Snuggerud scored twice on 11 shots on Friday, while sophomore forward Matthew Knies registered four points for the series. 

Minnesota has given the Irish problems ever since the formation of the Big Ten in 2017. Dating back to that point, the Golden Gophers own a 14-6-4 record against Notre Dame. In fact, Minnesota has not lost in regulation at Compton Family Ice Arena since the 2018-19 season. Every other conference opponent has fallen in 60 minutes at least three times in South Bend over that span. Last year, Minnesota and Notre Dame split a series at Compton in late January. The Golden Gophers prevailed 5-1 in game one, but current junior forward Landon Slaggert scored in overtime in the second game for a 3-2 Irish win. Minnesota has won seven of the past eight against the Irish.

Goal-den Gophers

Minnesota’s offense is elite. They have more double-digit point-scorers than any other Division I team, and the electricity of their top forward line could power a small city. That lead unit consists of freshman forward Logan Cooley, Matthew Knies and Jimmy Snuggerud, the team’s three leading scorers.

Cooley was the Arizona Coyotes’ third overall draft choice in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. He recently paced the U.S. with 14 points in the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championships. He then returned to college hockey and secured a Big Ten Star of the Week award last weekend. Cooley is the only player in the conference to receive such recognition four times this season. Knies, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2nd-round pick in the 2021 draft, has a four-game point streak against Notre Dame. Snuggerud, the Blues’ 23rd overall selection in the 2022 entry draft, also played in the World Juniors, finishing just behind Cooley with 13 points. 

Minnesota also boasts a strong defensive unit. The Irish can expect to see senior Justen Close between the pipes this weekend. He wields a .919 save percentage this year and stopped 45 of 46 Notre Dame shots in November. With the help of their superstars, the Golden Gophers have developed one of the strongest resumes in college hockey. Minnesota has a whopping 10 wins in games against teams ranked inside the top twelve. They reached double-figures with a 2-1 overtime defeat of No. 3 St. Cloud State on Sunday. The victory brought head coach Bob Motzko to 100 career wins in the Twin Cities. Within Big Ten play, Minnesota has recorded sweeps of then-No. 12 Notre Dame, then-No. 3 Michigan, then-No. 11 Michigan State and Wisconsin.

The duality of Notre Dame

Since the aforementioned sweep in Minneapolis, Notre Dame has operated in a loss-win pattern for 12 consecutive games. The Irish have never gone this long without consecutive wins or losses in the Jeff Jackson era. During the alternating stretch, opponents have outscored Notre Dame 25-9 in series openers, but the Irish have countered with a 22-11 advantage and a perfect record in closing games. Notre Dame has also not yet swept a series in twelve games of conference play. In previous years, the Irish had never gone more than six games before engineering a sweep in Big Ten action. Though the team has remained remarkably consistent, it will be nearly impossible to reach the NCAA tournament without a big weekend or two down the stretch.

How the Irish can fill the gaps

According to all three ranking publications (USCHO, USA Today, PairWise), Minnesota is a top-two college hockey team, and they have the numbers to back it up. The Golden Gophers’ offense is third in the country with exactly four goals per game. Senior goaltender Ryan Bischel and his .924 save percentage (9th in Division I) might have something to say about that if the Gophers do not reach 54 shots in a game this time. The defining moments of the weekend will likely come on special teams. Minnesota boasts a top-seven power-play unit in America (25.7%), while Notre Dame’s penalty killers inhabit the nation’s bottom seven (75.6%). The Irish have also struggled to make up ground on the man advantage, carrying a lowly 14.1 power-play conversion percentage.

All in all, Notre Dame wants to transfer momentum from Saturday’s 6-4 win in Madison. The Irish played one of their best 40-minute stretches this year against the Badgers, leading 5-0 and registering 29 shots through two periods. Trevor Janicke and junior defenseman Drew Bavaro have stepped into the limelight as of late, and they delivered signature performances on Saturday. Janicke scored twice and fired off a career-high-tying seven shots, while Bavaro also buried two first-period goals. Now Notre Dame’s leading point-scorer, Janicke has put multiple shots on goal in nine consecutive games. Bavaro has also been more active, amassing six points over his last seven games.

Series details

Friday night’s puck will drop at 7:00 p.m., while Saturday’s matchup will begin at 6:00 p.m. Notre Dame hockey will be celebrating 80’s night on Friday with a rally towel giveaway.  Both games will be available on Peacock and the Notre Dame Radio Network.