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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
The Observer

Big Ten hockey returns as Irish host No. 19 Ohio State

Irish senior forward Landon Slaggert (left) skates away from Ohio State’s Davis Burnside during a game at Compton Family Ice Arena on Feb. 11, 2023.

Big Ten hockey returns to South Bend this weekend. 

After testing the waters in conference play last week at No. 17 Penn State, the Irish come home for another top-20 opponent in the No. 19 Ohio State Buckeyes. 

The goal for Notre Dame (4-3-2, 0-0-2) this weekend is the same as it’s been in each of their last five series: growth.

“I think we’re getting better every weekend, which is a really good thing,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “I think our young guys are acclimating. I do like our mindset and approach each night.”

The Irish took three of six possible points against the Nittany Lions last weekend, winning in a shootout on Saturday and falling in a shootout on Sunday. In the second game, Notre Dame held the lead into the final minute of play. Conceding a late goal cost the Irish an additional two points, but the overall weekend result was a good way to open conference play. 

“Coming out of Penn State with three points was big – we should have probably had more just based on how the game played out on Sunday,” Jackson said. “Our guys are learning. I think the big challenge for them is learning to play back-to-back. That’s something we haven’t done consistently yet, but I think that’s something that will evolve for us.”

Putting together a full, 60-minute effort will be key for both teams this weekend. Ohio State (3-3-3, 0-3-1) is similarly looking for consistency. After winning their first two games of the year, the Buckeyes are 1-3-3 in their last seven games. They were swept at home by No. 11 Michigan State last weekend and now look to bounce back.

“We gotta get better,” Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik said. “Even Friday nights to Saturday nights, the consistency is not there.”

Particularly, the Buckeyes have gotten off to slow starts this year. They are 0-2-1 in their last three series openers.

“Friday nights, we’ve struggled this year,” sophomore forward Davis Burnside said. “I think being more consistent, a full 60 minutes on Friday, and hopefully that will translate to a win. And then we can worry about Saturday, but I think the biggest thing is getting a good start.”

The root of the problem for Ohio State may just be acclimation. The Buckeyes underwent extensive roster turnover in the offseason and now feature 15 new faces—more than half the team. There are eight freshmen and seven transfers on the Buckeyes.

On defense, the exodus has been particularly noticeable. Graduate student Scooter Brickey is the only returner out of the six defenders that started in Ohio State’s series at Notre Dame last February. 

The turnover has resulted in defensive zone struggles to start the year, some of which have shown up on the scoresheet. The Buckeyes allowed 7 goals in the conference opener at No. 8 Michigan and allowed 6 in each of the two losses to the Spartans last weekend.

“It’s just some sorting in the [defensive] zone, trying to figure out who’s got who sort of a situation, boxing out around our net,” graduate student forward Matt Cassidy said. “There were a couple of easy rebound goals [last weekend] and some d-zone faceoff stuff that are areas we are going to focus on.”

In addition to the losses on defense, Ohio State also had to replace the starting netminder who backstopped them to the NCAA tournament last season. With the departure of Jakub Dobeš to the AHL’s Laval Rocket, the Buckeyes brought over junior netminder Logan Terness from the University of Connecticut. Terness has started all nine games for the Buckeyes so far, posting a .901 save percentage.

Letting all those new pieces gel together will inevitably take time, although Ohio State would probably like to see the process begin to bear fruit this weekend. 

By all accounts, Ohio State’s effort in last Saturday’s 6-4 loss to the Spartans was a better one than Friday’s 6-0 defeat. The Buckeyes led the game early in the third period, receiving two goals from their much-maligned power play, which entered the game converting at a 12.1% clip.

The Buckeyes have collected just 2 of 12 possible points in conference play so far and will want to avoid falling too far off the pace. No. 3 Wisconsin is the Big Ten’s early leader, with a perfect 4-0-0 record and 12 points. 

Notre Dame understands this delicate balance between winning and growing all too well. The Irish saw it play out last weekend in State College. 

Trailing in the third period of Saturday’s contest, Notre Dame came back to win in the shootout. Freshman forwards Maddox Fleming and Cole Knuble were instrumental, with Fleming scoring the game-tying goal and Knuble the shootout winner.

Leading in the third period of Sunday’s game, the script flipped. Notre Dame could not secure the victory and lost in the shootout. 

“In the third I thought we were playing pretty well, but I thought we got a little tentative. We started playing a little bit ‘not to lose’ as opposed to playing aggressively and staying with our game,” Jackson said. “And again, that’s a maturity thing.

We have to gain confidence in who we are and who we are as a team. Once we gain confidence in how we need to play to be successful, whether it’s to come from behind like we did on Saturday or to hold the lead or to score the next goal on Sunday… those are all situations these guys are going through for the first time.”

The idea is that this freshman-heavy Irish group will be better for the learning experience in both games, regardless of the result. But they too are aware that racking up points now is the best way to mitigate the stiff test that the conference poses.

If there’s one thing Notre Dame and Ohio State can agree upon, it’s this: nobody wants to learn while losing.

The puck drops on conference play at Compton Family Ice Arena at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The series finale will begin at 6 p.m. on Saturday.

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