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Sunday, April 14, 2024
The Observer

Stakes at an all-time high for Irish in final regular season series

In theory, the end of the season should provide the most dramatic moment of a team’s season. But that often is not the case. Many teams are either too good or too bad to have much at stake for their season finale. As a result, the last weekend of the season can sometimes be more a glorified warmup in anticipation of a deep postseason run or merely just a playing out of the string.

Notre Dame hockey is not in either of these groups. They are one of those few special teams with a lot riding on their final regular season series, a daunting challenge in Ann Arbor against the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines. A rivalry matchup with a top-five opponent in enemy territory would qualify as an exciting way to conclude a season no matter what. But there are massive implications for Notre Dame's Big Ten and NCAA Tournament hopes.

It is still possible for the Irish to host the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. But they need at least four out of six possible points this weekend for that to happen. That would have been no problem for last year's Irish team. A year ago, Notre Dame swept its regular-season series against Michigan, which included its final two games. The Irish were forced to settle for a split in their first meeting against the Wolverines this season back in mid-November at home. The Irish were thrashed in the series opener 5-1 before clawing back from a 2-0 deficit in the series finale thanks to 31 saves from senior goaltender Ryan Bischel and an overtime winner from junior forward Grant Silianoff.

This weekend could also double as a preview of the first round of the Big Ten Tournament if Michigan takes care of business and some other results across the conference break in specific ways. That is a matchup the Irish would like to avoid as much as possible. Not only did the Wolverines eliminate the Irish in last year’s Big Ten tournament, but they once again boast one of the country’s best rosters. Michigan’s roster includes four first-round NHL Draft picks, headlined by 2021 top-five selection Luke Hughes. They are second in the conference in goal scoring. And the Irish are probably not equipped to take advantage of Michigan’s achilles heel: their defense.

There are a couple of factors that could change that, both this weekend and potentially beyond. First, junior forward Landon Slaggert is starting to come out of his nearly year-long shooting percentage funk. After scoring 13.9% of his shots in his first two collegiate seasons, Slaggert converted on just two of his first 50 shots on goal this season, a staggeringly low shooting percentage of just four percent. It was always unlikely that the latter figure was indicative of Slaggert’s true talent level after he spent two seasons as one of the team’s best forwards. Sure enough, he has four goals on 11 shots in his last five games. That includes both goals in Notre Dame's pivotal 2-1 over Ohio State last Friday.

The other is whether Notre Dame’s power play can continue its late-season emergence. Over their last six games, the Irish have scored on 26.9% of their power play opportunities. That number would be best in the Big Ten over a full season. It is also well above Notre Dame's full-season mark of 18.2%. It has been not just an effective unit as of late, but a timely one as well. Most notably, graduate student defenseman Nick Leivermann netted a crucial PPG in Notre Dame's last game, a second-period equalizer that helped the Irish erase a 2-0 deficit against Ohio State. Without that goal, Notre Dame’s emotional Senior Night shootout win may not have happened.

Michigan goaltender Erik Portillo has regressed a fair bit this season, with his save percentage dropping 18 points from last year. A confident Slaggert and strong power-play performance would go a long way toward further diminishing his numbers. However, Bischel and the Irish defense should expect to have their hands full this weekend. Three of the conference’s top six scorers play for Michigan, including consensus 2023 No. 2 NHL Draft pick Adam Fantilli.

Seven Wolverines have more points than Notre Dame’s leading scorer (graduate student forward Chayse Primeau with 21). Fantilli himself is more than doubling Primeau's output, leading the entire country despite turning 18 two games into Michigan's season. He and Hughes, tied for seventh in the country in assists, lead a Wolverines power play that is second in the conference at 23.1%.

Expect the Irish to try and turn this into a tight-checking, physical series as they did last month against Wisconsin. That is especially likely because losing in regulation would be damaging to Notre Dame's NCAA Tournament hopes. Teams must be at least .500 in order to be eligible, a line the 14-14-4 Irish are dangerously straddling. The Irish have finished under .500 just three times in Jeff Jackson’s first 17 seasons and not once since 2014-15. They have struggled to build off of last year's impressive 28-12 campaign and near Frozen Four miss. There is still a chance for that to change, but this weekend is the time to make it happen.

The series begins at 7 p.m. Friday night at Michigan’s Yost Ice Arena. The regular season finale for both teams is Saturday night at 8 p.m. Both games are available on B1G+ and the Notre Dame radio network.