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Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024
The Observer

In first year as starter, Ryan Bischel reaches the next level

Max Petrosky/The Observer
Irish goaltender Ryan Bischel makes a kick save during the game between Notre Dame and Penn State at the Compton Family Ice Arena on Dec. 10, 2022.

Last summer, as Notre Dame hockey was going through the annual process of compiling its roster, head coach Jeff Jackson had some tough decisions to make. But, some calls weren't so difficult, namely his conversation with senior goaltender Ryan Bischel. The message to the Medina, Minnesota native heading into his fourth season with the Irish was simple.

The net was his.

“It was awesome to have that, to know that the coaches had that confidence for sure,” said Bischel.

That confidence was earned, not given. And over the season, it continued to grow as Bischel flourished. Its roots date back to the beginning of Bischel's collegiate career. Last year laid the foundation. And in 2022-23, Bischel emerged as not just Notre Dame's starter, but one of the best goaltenders in all of college hockey.

Road to the crease

Notre Dame hockey is steeped in tradition in many areas. And the crease is one of them. Most of the 18 iterations of Irish hockey Jackson have coached have had an outstanding netminder between the pipes. And early in Bischel's career, that was the case — although Bischel was not often the one in net.

In Bischel's freshman year, 2019-20, Cale Morris was the starter. He recorded a strong .916 save percentage, was named an All-B1G Team Honorable Mention and has played 64 professional games across the AHL and ECHL since departing. The next year, the net largely belonged to Dylan St. Cyr., who posted the first of three straight seasons with a .915 save percentage or better before recently signing an amateur tryout with the Detroit Red Wings' AHL affiliate. And last year, Matthew Galajda had the lion's share of the starts. The Cornell transfer finished with a stellar .933 save percentage before heading to Sweden to play professionally.

All three continued the tradition of great goaltending in South Bend. They also helped prepare Bischel to do the same, both by teaching him and pushing him to do more.

“It was awesome,” Bischel said of the experience. “Even before coming to Notre Dame, I played with really good goalies at Fargo and the USHL. Being in competition and practice every day with other guys is something that pushed me to be a lot better, and I think I took pieces from each other games and kind of tried to instill a little bit of it in my own.”

Stepping into the spotlight

While Bischel definitely took a big step forward in 2022-23, he was hardly an unknown commodity coming into the season. Across his first two seasons, Bischel played in 16 games, registering a solid .900 save percentage. Last season, however, Bischel truly started making himself a key part in Notre Dame's great goaltending tradition. Bischel doubled his career games played total, appearing in 16 games last season. And Bischel impressed when Jackson called his number. Bischel finished the year with a sparkling .924 save percentage, making 35 or more saves on three separate occasions.

But Bischel wasn't satisfied. The Irish bringing in Galajda naturally meant he was not going to play as much as he would have otherwise. But with Galajda's collegiate career ending, Bischel's time as Notre Dame's No. 1 in net began. That meant a new level of responsibility for the 23-year-old.

“Coach Jackson kind of just told me going into the year that the net was mine, and it's kind of up to me as far as like how I wanted to prepare for the season,” Bischel said. “And I think I did a good job with my work in the weight room and kind of just like taking a step mentally was a big thing for me.”

In recent years, the Irish have usually relied on two goaltenders to get through their season. But with Galajda leaving and none of Notre Dame's other goaltenders having so much as a game for the Irish, Jackson rode his new starter hard. Bischel started all 37 of Notre Dame's games this season, with freshman Josh Williams making a mere two relief appearances. The last time an Irish netminder shouldered such a lion's share of the workload was 2016-17, when Cal Petersen made 40 appearances to Morris' one. All Petersen has done since leaving Notre Dame is play in 101 NHL games for the Los Angeles Kings.

In that one-man netminding show, Petersen posted a .926 save percentage in a season strong enough to make him a Hockey East First Team All-Star. Petersen already had two years of starting experience under his belt before that season. Bischel did not — and yet he posted an even better .933 mark.

A season to remember

Bischel's tenure as Notre Dame's starter didn't get off to a sparkling start, however. Bischel gave up four goals on 22 shots in his first game against Air Force — a less than spectacular .846 SV%. In his second game, Bischel allowed three goals on 13 shots, prompting Jackson to pull him.

It was the only time all regular season Bischel would have consecutive games with a save percentage below .900.

The Irish needed every last save Bischel could offer them. After scoring 3.2 goals per game a season ago, the Irish averaged just 2.3 per contest in 2022-23. Notre Dame was fifth out of seven B1G teams on the power play and last on the penalty kill. The Irish collected just 45.4% of the shot attempts in their games. In other words, for every four shots the Irish took, their opponent fired five. That may not sound like a huge disparity, but it adds up over the course of 37 games.

Also adding up over the course of 37 games was Bischel's amount of spectacular performances. While consistency was a huge part of Bischel's success, there were a few moments that stick out more than others. You aren't Big Ten Star of the Week three times, included on the Mike Richter Award Watch List, nominated for the sport's most prestigious award in the Hobey Baker and named an All-American without a few standout showings. Although, a bit ironically, Bischel credits a lot of his success to blocking out all of these accolades.

“For the first time in my, my hockey career, I really didn't pay attention to any of that stuff at all,” Bischel said. “I think a big thing for me this year was not comparing myself to, to one of the other guys were doing in the country. It was just like, I'm focused on what I can control every day and doing my own thing. And I think that kind of gave me the best chance I have success this year personally.”

That success came in many different forms. The accolades were one of them. So was Bischel's first shutout of the year, a 30-save performance on Oct. 21 against Western Michigan — a game that had extra meaning to Bischel.

“My parents were here in town,” Bischel said. “It was awesome.”

So was the conclusion to Notre Dame's regular season. Over Notre Dame's final four games, Bischel etched an absurd .955 over those final four games. That included an improbable victory over Michigan on the season's final day to clinch home-ice in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. It was improbable not just because the Wolverines had a much higher ranking than the Irish. But also because Michigan outshot Notre Dame by an almost comical 49-22 margin, including a 27-6 edge in the third period alone. Yet there was Bischel, time and time again, stopping just about every type of shot the Wolvernies could throw at him.

It would have been surprising if Bischel hadn't done similar things before. Exactly a week before, Bischel stopped 50 of 52 across regulation and 3-on-3 overtime. He then outlasted the Buckeyes and their outstanding netminder Jakub Dobes in a nine-round shootout to finish the job.

“As a team, we faced a lot of adversity, kind of ups and downs throughout the year. But I think I was, I was really happy with the effort that the guys put together at the end of the year. We had (that) big win against Ohio State on senior night and then went into Michigan and did a really good job. I had a good weekend there on the road, which is a tough building to play in. So I think we showed a lot of growth as a team and it has me excited for next year's group.”

Back for more

Next year's group will indeed include Bischel. Unlike most of the rest of Notre Dame's upper classmen, Bischel did not have much of a role in last year's NCAA Tournament run. He watched from the bench as the Irish suffered a painstaking 1-0 loss against Minnesota State in a game that would have sent them to the Frozen Four. There's still unfinished business for the Irish and Jackson, who is still looking for his first national championship. And that means there's unofficial business for Bischel, too.

“For me coming in, like, my thing of coming to Notre Dame was I wanted to win a national championship or at least compete for one,” Bischel said. “And I haven't really done that. I haven't been in the net playoffs in a regional yet.”

He continued, “ ... I want to get this team to the national tournament and kind of give Coach Jackson a chance to have another kick if can as far as winning a national championship. And I just feel like I, I hadn't accomplished everything I wanted to do here at Notre Dame and I have more of a mark to leave on this place, for sure.”