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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Irish seek payback against MSU in Big Ten Tournament

Why has Notre Dame hockey spent the last three weeks in must-win games for its NCAA tournament hopes? Why did it take an improbable series of events to bring the Irish back to Compton Family Ice Arena? The answer: Michigan State. A month ago, the Spartans swept Notre Dame in East Lansing, pinning the Irish firmly against the proverbial wall.

“Losing there was disappointing, but we didn’t have much time to be down on ourselves,” junior defenseman Drew Bavaro said. “We got right back to work. It’s a credit to our coaching staff and a credit to our leadership group.”

Now, after two victories and two ties (both of which ended in Irish shootout victories) against No. 9 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan, the Irish are hungry to get the last laugh against the Spartans. They’ll host Michigan State this weekend for the right to play in the Big Ten quarterfinals. With both teams sitting right on the edge of the presumptive NCAA tournament bubble, the three-game series may serve as a win-and-in for the big dance.

Unleashing a pent-up power-play

It’s been a long time coming for Notre Dame’s power play. Through three-quarters of the season, the man advantage had yielded only disappointment, contributing to Notre Dame’s puzzling overall inconsistency. However, the group has flipped a major switch in recent weeks. The Irish power-play is 10-for-33 over its last eight games and has struck at least once in every series of 2023.

“That’s been huge, especially in this league. Everyone’s so good in five-on-five that it’s hard to score goals,” Bavaro said. “On the power-play, we feel like we have an obligation to help the team gain some momentum. I think over the past month everyone took a deep breath and just started trusting their instincts a little bit more.”

Bavaro’s efforts helped Notre Dame punish Michigan in man-up situations last week. The blue-liner assisted on both power-play goals Friday and scored a PPG of his own Saturday. Recently, big-bodied players have freed up Notre Dame’s outside shooters by creating traffic around opposing goalies. Bavaro’s goal, a slap-shot fired through the visual obstruction of 6-foot-6 forward Jack Adams, was a prime example. Adams and fellow tall graduate Chayse Primeau will look to frustrate MSU in the same sense.

Well-rested Spartans look to get over the hump

There’s an elephant in the room with Michigan State’s program. The Spartans have lost their last 15 postseason games dating back to 2013. However, if there’s an MSU team to break the curse and send the Irish home, it’s this one. In his first year in East Lansing, head coach Adam Nightingale has orchestrated a remarkable turnaround. The Spartans ended last season on a 1-15 nosedive. Now, they sit at a respectable 16-16-2 after competing well in the loaded Big Ten.

“I think [Nightingale] made some really good choices as far as building his roster, and they’ve done an incredible job of getting their guys to buy in,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “It reminds me a lot of when I started at Notre Dame. It’s about building a culture and an identity in how you play the game.”

Like Notre Dame, Michigan State enters South Bend with an appetite for vengeance. Two weeks ago, MSU unexpectedly lost its final regular season game to lowly Wisconsin, allowing the Irish to steal the four seed. After last week’s bye, the Spartans have had plenty of time to heal up and chew on its loss of home ice.

Contrary to Michigan, MSU doesn’t have big names but thrives on balanced offensive contributions. That starts with Nicolas Muller’s 29 points. He scored both times the Spartans beat Notre Dame last month. Jagger Joshua has posted seven power-play goals but has taken an alarming number of penalties lately. Meanwhile, MSU’s experienced defensemen have stepped up down the stretch. Fifth-year man Cole Krygier has 10 goals on the year, while senior Erik Middendorf has assisted seven times in his last five games.

“Our style is that we want to clog up and make teams play not as fast, but they do similar things,” Bavaro said. “I think they play a little bit heavier than most other teams — more structured with less run-and-gun. They’re gonna be physical, and they’re not afraid to dump pucks in.”

An epic showdown between the pipes

Among all the storylines, this weekend’s goaltending matchup might top the list. Michigan State’s Dylan St. Cyr and Notre Dame graduate student Ryan Bischel have a history together. The former spent his first four collegiate years in South Bend with Bischel backing him up for the final two. The two split time in the 2020-21 season before Bischel‘s concussion put St. Cyr in charge. Though they are still buddies off the ice, the former teammates have found another gear when facing one another. In their four meetings this season, Bischel has a .952 save percentage to St. Cyr’s .944.

Bischel currently sits second in the nation with a .932 save percentage and leads the country with 1,095 saves. On the other side, St. Cyr carries a .914 save percentage and will likely eclipse 1,000 stops over the next two games. Both goalies have seen it all this year, playing in a combined 59 of 68 games. 

Michigan State has been Notre Dame’s second-worst matchup among Big Ten opponents this year. The Spartans took eight of 12 points from the Irish in the regular season, including a shootout victory at Compton on Oct. 29. This weekend’s puck drop times are 7 p.m. Friday, 4:30 p.m. Saturday and, if necessary, 6 p.m. Sunday. Each game will be broadcast on FS2.