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Tuesday, June 25, 2024
The Observer

Four straight Spartan goals send first round series the distance

As the horn sounded to signal the end of the first period, there was reason for the capacity crowd at Compton Family Ice Arena to dream big.

The Irish entered the evening leading the series 1-0. For the second straight game, after coming out of the gate slow, the Irish turned it up in the back half of the opening frame. This time, they had a goal to show for their improvements. They were 40 minutes away from a spot in the Big Ten Quarterfinals and had not allowed a goal in the first four periods of their first round series against Michigan State. The Irish were seizing their biggest opportunity of the season.

Then those 40 minutes played out, and the results left the Irish shellshocked. The Spartans scored four straight times, including three goals in a nine-minute span, to hand Notre Dame its first home loss since Jan. 14, breaking a five-game streak.

"They played more desperate than us," head coach Jeff Jackson said. "Their season's on the line. We didn't match that. Now tomorrow we're gonna have to. Simple as that."

For the second straight game, Michigan State came out guns blazing, peppering graduate student goaltender Ryan Bischel early and often. Through 13 minutes, the shot counter read 15-1 in the visitors' favor.

"We definitely need to get off to a better start," Jackson said. "We have to be ready for their [aggressiveness]. When our wings don't do a good job on the wall, we turn pucks over and are stuck in our own zone."

For the second straight night, the Irish were at least able to course correct on the fly. They did generate some early looks — a dangerous deflection by sophomore forward Justin Janicke went just wide, as did a breakaway bid from graduate student forward Jack Adams.

It would have been easy for Notre Dame to get frustrated. But they stayed patient until, with just under three minutes left in the first period, Michigan State gave them a gift. A beautiful stretch pass by graduate student defenseman Ben Brinkman sprung senior forwards Solag Bakich and Trevor Janicke on a clear-cut two-on-none. The Irish executed it beautifully, with Bakich passing to Janicke, who returned the favor and allowed Bakich to put himself and the puck into the back of the cage. It was such a stunning breakdown, Michigan State even challenged for too many men, only for the goal to stand.

"I was really happy with that line," Jackson said of the work of Bakich, Janicke and senior forward Jesse Lansdell. "They played well tonight. We need the other lines to play up to that same level."

That tally seemed to wake the Irish up, at least temporarily. Notre Dame finished with eight of the frame's final nine shots, including an unsuccessful but productive power-play 40 seconds after Bakich's third goal of the season. The Irish carried that momentum into the second, outshooting Michigan State in the middle stanza for the second straight day and by a fairly decisive 12-8 margin to boot. There was just one problem: the only two shots that went in belonged to Michigan State.

The Spartans first took advantage of a boarding penalty by junior forward Grant Silianoff. Spartans assist leader Nicolas Muller added to his total with a beautiful backdoor pass to give Jeremy Davidson a tap-in.

"The whole game changed when we took [that] penalty,” Jackson said.

Then, with just over three minutes to play, freshman Matt Basgall snuck in from the right point and wired a wrister past Bischel to give Michigan State its first lead of the series — a lead they would not lose.

Any thoughts of an Irish comeback were put to bed early in the third. A wide-open Nash Nienhuis ripped a one-timer past Bischel from the right hash marks just 3:27 in the frame. Barely two minutes later, Karsen Dorwart continued the onslaught with a bad-angle shot that snuck over the shoulder of Bischel. Notre Dame's offensive woes continued for much of the frame, as the Irish failed to generate quality looks until a late game power-play gave them some life. With Bischel off for an extra attacker, Adams deflected a shot by junior defenseman Drew Bavaro to bring the Irish within two. The Irish did pressure during the final moments, but their efforts ultimately proved to be too little, too late.

It all sets up a defining game three Sunday that will likely decide both teams' NCAA Tournament fates. A loss would drop Michigan State below .500 and make them automatically ineligible. Notre Dame would still be above that automatic cut line, but would likely fail to crack the 16-team field. For an Irish team that has made each of the last six NCAA Tournaments, missing would be a devastating outcome.

It is not that the Irish have not had opportunities to reach lofty heights this year. Saturday snapped an 18-game streak of Notre Dame holding its opponents to three goals or less. The Irish threatened late in the game, coming inches away at one point from pulling within one. They may not have even needed a comeback Saturday if they could have taken advantage of their strong play in the second period, notably coming up empty on the two power plays they had before Michigan State took over.

Sunday will present the Irish with another opportunity to further the success the program has achieved under Jackson's watch. If they fail, it could be the last one they have until fall. Most areas of Notre Dame's game have struggled at points in this season. The offense has frequently gone dry, both of Notre Dame's special teams units have succeeded at below-average rates and even Bischel, the backbone of the team, has let in the odd bad goal, like Saturday's fourth one. The one thing the Irish have had all season is their experience. Just five Irish players who played Saturday are a freshman or sophomore. They will need that, and more, to come through Sunday and gain more opportunities to achieve their dream.

Sunday's series-deciding game three begins at 6 p.m. at Compton Family Ice Arena. The game is available to watch on FS2.