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Thursday, April 18, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame hockey hosts No. 7 Ohio State in critical series

With just four games remaining in the regular season, it is crunch time for Notre Dame hockey. 

Playing in front of their home crowd for the final time in the 2022-23 regular season this weekend, the Fighting Irish welcome the No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes to Compton Family Ice Arena. It’s yet another late-season series that will carry postseason implications and a playoff energy.

“The last couple weeks, the last month here, has been like playoff hockey to begin with, and it’s not going to change,” said Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson.

Jackson’s Fighting Irish (13-14-3, 8-10-2) come into this weekend’s series on the outside of the NCAA Tournament picture after getting swept last weekend at No. 15 Michigan State. Notre Dame currently sits at a precarious 19th in the PairWise Rankings and are sixth in the seven-team Big Ten. 

The visiting Buckeyes (17-10-1, 10-8-0) have split each of their last three series. Last weekend in Columbus, Ohio State dropped a Friday matchup to No. 8 Penn State 4-3, before countering with a 4-2 win on Saturday to avoid being swept. After being the first team out of the NCAA Tournament last season, the Buckeyes are in a strong position to make the tournament this year. Ohio State is ranked 8th in the PairWise and is in a four-way tie for second place in the Big Ten.

“The biggest challenge you always face against them is trying to hold a lead, because they do have offensive potential to score on four lines, and that’s what makes them such a challenging team,” Jackson said about Ohio State. “They may not have all the first-rounders of Minnesota or Michigan, but they certainly have scoring depth on every line which makes them a dangerous team.”

The teams have already met twice this season, both in November. In the first game of the series, Ohio State topped Notre Dame 5-2. In that game, Notre Dame held a 2-1 lead early in the second period and had a chance to increase their advantage on the power play, but a Tate Singleton short-handed goal tied the score. The Buckeyes then rattled off three third-period goals to put the game away.

In the second contest, Notre Dame responded with a 1-0 win despite getting outshot 37-18. Graduate student forward Jack Adams scored the only goal 2:37 into the contest. Senior netminder Ryan Bischel was perfect between the pipes.

As the series shifts to South Bend, it is important to note that the Irish have found success at home this season. Notre Dame is 9-4-2 at home this year and 4-10-1 away from Compton.

This weekend, Friday night’s game begins at 7:30 p.m. The puck drops Saturday at 6 p.m. Students are encouraged to stay after Saturday’s game to watch the team’s Senior Night celebrations, which will take place on the ice in front of the student section.

Irish looking for offense

Notre Dame has struggled with scoring over the course of the season. That struggle was apparent again last weekend in East Lansing. On Friday night, the Irish were shutout for the fifth time this season, 3-0. Notre Dame comes into the game averaging 2.37 goals per game, and only 2.15 goals per game in conference play.

“The biggest thing, just responding from last weekend, is just [to] keep working on things to generate 5-on-5 scoring chances,” Jackson said. “That’s the thing that’s haunted us pretty much all season long, the inability to finish, whether it be at 5-on-5 or even on the power play at times.”

The Irish offense took a big hit two weeks ago when then-leading scorer Ryder Rolston suffered an upper-body injury. According to the team, he is out for the short-term future.

Ohio State has not had the same trouble scoring this year, averaging 3.50 goals per game coming into the weekend. Freshman Stephen Halliday, a fourth-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, is producing at a point-per-game rate with seven goals and 23 assists this year. With five assists last weekend, Halliday was named the Big Ten’s third star of the week. Another freshman, the undrafted Davis Burnside, leads the team in goals with 13.

Ohio State special teams strong

Ohio State’s special teams have been an important part of their success this season. They rank 22nd in the country on the power play with a 21.2% clip. 

More importantly, the Buckeyes also boast the best penalty kill in the nation. Ohio State has an 89.1% success rate on the penalty kill, which just tops Michigan Tech’s 88.9% for best in the country. The Buckeyes also lead the nation in short-handed goals with nine. Ohio State has scored almost as many goals short-handed as they’ve allowed. When down a man, Ohio State has incredibly allowed just 12 goals and scored nine.

Notre Dame understands the importance of strong special teams. The Irish were in Ohio State’s position last year, when they sported the nation’s best penalty kill themselves. The penalty kill has been less strong for the Irish this season, though at times it has shown signs of brilliance. The numbers don’t reflect as much. At 75.5%, Notre Dame ranks 55th of 62 teams nationally on the kill, and the penalty kill unit allowed two critical goals in last Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Michigan State.

NCAA and Big Ten Tournaments loom 

The number of games remaining in the regular season can now be counted on one hand for the Fighting Irish. 

Unlike in the recent past — when the Irish were often in a comfortable position to secure an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament and home ice in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament by this point in the season — Notre Dame’s path to the postseason is less certain. But that is not necessarily foreboding.

Despite the fact that the Irish are sixth in the Big Ten standings, Notre Dame is only four points out of second. As the most competitive conference in the nation this year, the Big Ten standings are log-jammed, with a four-way tie for second place. 

Two of those teams, Ohio State and Michigan, are Notre Dame’s final opponents of the regular season. The simplest way to move up the standings table is to take points away from the Buckeyes and Wolverines. The teams in second, third and fourth places in the Big Ten standings take home ice in the first round of the conference tournament, while the top team receives a bye.

Minnesota is the runaway conference leader, and the Golden Gophers can clinch the Big Ten regular-season title with a sweep of last place Wisconsin this weekend. This would give Minnesota the first-round bye, and leave the remaining five teams (sans Wisconsin) squabbling for home ice.

In terms of the national picture, the Irish are 19th in the PairWise Rankings, which factor into determining who makes the NCAA Tournament. The six conference champions are all given auto-bids to the tournament. The next-10 best teams in the PairWise make the tournament as at-large teams. Typically, teams want to be near the top-12 in the PairWise to feel comfortable that they can get in.

All regular season and conference tournament games are factored into the PairWise. It is conceivable that Notre Dame will play only teams ranked higher than them through the end of their Big Ten Tournament run. This leaves plenty of opportunity for the Irish to sneak up the rankings, as they seek their eighth NCAA Tournament appearance in the last 10 years.