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Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024
The Observer

Up-and-down Irish look to stabilize against Badgers

No matter who they play or what they do, Notre Dame hockey has been unable to escape the seesaw that their 2022-23 season has become. Since Nov. 11, the Irish have played seven two-game series against the same opponent, and they've split all seven. It doesn't matter whether the Irish are playing teams at the top, middle or bottom of the Big Ten standings. It's been win one, lose one for almost as long as the Irish can remember, a pattern that has prevented them from looking like last year's near-Frozen Four team for anything more than a brief moment.

There is still time for the Irish to make a big push. They are just seven points back of Penn State and Ohio State, who are tied for second in the Big Ten. And if there is any team that the Irish figure to be able to find consistent success against, it's their opponent this weekend: the Wisconsin Badgers. Not only are the Irish home, where they've been much better than they have on the road, but the Badgers are currently bringing up the Big Ten's rear.

It's Wisconsin's first time at Compton Family Ice Arena since last Mar. 6, when the Irish eliminated them from the Big Ten tournament by taking Game Three of their first-round series by a 4-2 final. Game one of that series should ensure the Irish will not underestimate Wisconsin goaltender Jared Moe anytime soon, though. Moe stopped 49 of 50 Irish shots in a 3-1 Wisconsin victory. Moe has once again been a bright spot for the Badgers, posting a strong .917 save percentage and starting all but four of Wisconsin's games.

The pressure will likely be on Moe and Irish senior goaltender Ryan Bischel, because neither team is particularly stellar on offense. Expect games more similar to the 2-0 game these teams played on Jan. 6 than the 6-4 one the day after. Neither team averages more than 2.5 goals per game or has a single player with at least ten goals.

The Badgers are no pushover, however. While neither side scores much, Wisconsin's power play is much better (20.1% vs. 15.5%). The Badgers also outshoot their opponents, a battle the Irish have lost this season — often badly. The Badgers also have some good bloodlines among their top players. Cruz Lucius, the brother of 2021 first-round NHL draft pick Chaz, leads Wisconsin with nine goals and 24 points. Right behind him is Brock Caufield, the brother of Montréal Canadiens sharpshooter Cole.

Cruz himself is an NHL Draft pick, going in round four to Carolina last year. He is one of ten Badgers, including Moe, to have been taken in the draft. Defenseman Corson Cuelemans is the highest among them, going off the board 25th to Columbus in 2021. Cuelemans is tied with Caufield and Mathieu De St. Phalle for second on the team with 14 points. His seven goals make him one of the highest-scoring blue-liners in the Big Ten. Wisconsin certainly lacks depth — no one else on the team has double-digit points. But they will present a challenge for the Irish, especially since Notre Dame has been without star graduate student defenseman Nick Leivermann since Jan. 7.

The Irish enter this weekend as mired in a scoring slump as they have been all season. The Irish have not scored more than two goals (excluding the shootout) in their last four games. The good news is that Notre Dame's last offensive outburst came against the Badgers, when they scored a season-high six goals on Jan. 7 in Madison. Junior defenseman Drew Bavaro and senior forward Trevor Janicke both tallied two goals and an assist, while senior forward Jesse Lansdell also tallied three points.

There are reasons to think the Irish can push for more offense down the stretch. Janicke and junior forward Ryder Rolston have been picking up their play as of late. Janicke has five points in his last five games, and Rolston is coming off a two-point weekend. Junior forward Landon Slaggert also has two helpers in his last four games, and while this season has been a struggle, it is worth noting Slaggert is scoring on just 4.3% of his shots. That is well below his 12.9% and 15.7% rates from the last two seasons. Some much-needed regression to the mean could be the boost the Irish need.

However, that will not matter if Notre Dame cannot tighten things up in their own zone. The Irish yielded a jaw-dropping 98 shots in their series last weekend at Penn State. For reference, Lindenwood is last in the entire country in shots against per game at 41.8. Notre Dame is not too far behind (or ahead, depending on your perspective), surrendering the fourth most at 35.1. Bischel has been great, but the Irish cannot depend on him for everything.

Expect him to be back in the crease this weekend. The series starts at Compton Family Ice Arena on Friday at 7:30 p.m. It wraps up at 6 p.m. on Saturday. Both games are available to stream on Peacock.