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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

Michigan, Notre Dame renew hockey rivalry

Notre Dame’s Landon Slaggert (19) checks Michigan’s Ethan Edwards (73) during the game between No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan at the Compton Family Ice Arena on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. The Irish took down the Wolverines 4-1.

Earlier this week, temperatures dipped into the low twenties and snow flurries dusted the ground. It’s regular now to hear Christmas music floating through the air on South Quad or to see your breath vaporized in a cold morning’s air.

There is no doubt about it: winter is in full swing. At Compton Family Ice Arena, that means hockey season is too.

As the calendar turns to December, Notre Dame hockey is readying for its most meaningful series of the season to date. Beginning Friday, the Irish host No. 13 Michigan for a two-game set.

Pointing out that the two games this weekend are meaningful may seem like stating the obvious. Whenever Notre Dame and Michigan take the ice together, the games are always meaningful — that’s the nature of a rivalry. 

A fundamental antagonism exists between the two hockey programs, separated by a short three-hour commute. That antagonism has created a handful of dramatic college hockey moments. Just last year, Notre Dame earned two climactic extra-time wins in Ann Arbor to secure home ice advantage in the Big Ten tournament.

The teams have also met 18 times in postseason play, and although Michigan holds the edge with a 10-8 record, some of the most important wins in Notre Dame’s hockey history have come over the Wolverines, including two Frozen Four semifinal victories and three CCHA tournament championship games.

This weekend, obviously, is not a postseason series. But, it will be a consequential conference series for both sides as they claw for positioning in the ever-competitive Big 10. Currently, Michigan sits in fifth place in the seven-team conference with nine points in eight games. Notre Dame is in third, with 12 points in six games played.

Michigan (7-6-3-0, 2-4-1-1) has struggled to gain momentum so far this season. After a 1-4-1 start to November, they seemed well on their way to righting the ship in a non-conference series at No. 17 St. Cloud State. Having won the first game and built a 3-0 cushion in game two, the Wolverines saw their lead slip away late. A St. Cloud State goal with 7.8 seconds remaining left Michigan to settle for a 3-3 tie. With only one sweep (over Lindenwood) so far this season, the Wolverines would have to wait for another. 

The fifth-place position in the standings is an unfamiliar one for Michigan. Winners of the last two conference tournament crowns, they have yet to earn a B1G sweep this season. Their current position would leave them without home-ice advantage in the tournament’s first round for the first time since 2019 if the tournament started today.

The good news for Michigan is that isn't the case. But with 16 games behind them, this series versus Notre Dame represents a fulcrum in the Wolverines’ season. After this weekend, Michigan will not play again until Jan. 12 against Stonehill. With one last chance to build momentum before the break, the Wolverines will be looking to send a message.

But Notre Dame (7-5-2, 3-1-1-1) will be looking to send a message, too. Although they still have another series (at No. 8 Michigan State) before their holiday break, the Irish are in dire need of a bounce-back performance. Last Friday, Notre Dame was beaten 6-1 at home by No. 1 Boston College, and they have now lost consecutive games for the first time all season.

Wins over No. 4 Boston University, Ohio State, and No. 7 Minnesota have shown the hockey world that the Irish are a legitimately good team, rather than just some scrappy underdog. What Notre Dame will be trying to prove this weekend is that they are not just a good team, but a resilient one, too. 

“Consistency becomes a huge factor,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “As well as we played the weekend prior against Minnesota — especially on Friday, but even just the big parts of the game on Saturday — we didn’t carry that over to the game against Boston College.”

Of all the things to keep in mind, consistency may be the biggest key to a successful weekend for Notre Dame.

“We just have to find that consistency in our game, and try to play the same way in every period of every game. From here on out, it’s going to be like that. We don’t have a lot of places to hide, so we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to play every night,” Jackson said.

Another key for Jackson’s Irish will be improving their transition defense. It was lacking against Boston College on Black Friday and will be tested by a potent Wolverine offense that ranks tied for third nationally, scoring 4.31 goals per game.

It may seem ironic, but Notre Dame will need to defend Michigan’s defensemen this weekend. In fact, Michigan’s leading points-getter so far is a defenseman, New Jersey Devils draft pick Seamus Casey. Casey has four goals and 18 assists from the back end so far.

“They’ve got good offensive depth, not just up front but on the back end,” Jackson said of Michigan on Wednesday. “They’ve got very mobile and skilled defensemen. Their defensemen play a key part to their transition game and their o-zone play. They’re very interactive, it’s like having five forwards on the ice at times.”

The Wolverine’s offensive depth will be critically important for Michigan this weekend due to their ongoing struggle with injuries. Sophomore forward Jackson Hallum was ruled out for the rest of the season after putting up eight points in his first nine games, while the Wolverines are still awaiting the season debut of sophomore defenseman Ethan Edwards.

To boot, junior forward Mark Estapa and sophomore star Rutger McGroarty have been sidelined for the last 3 games, and are unlikely to play this weekend according to the Michigan Daily. McGroarty, a 2022 first-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets, had 18 points in 13 games before sustaining an injury Nov. 17 against Penn State.

One area in which both teams will look to get an edge is on special teams. Notre Dame has succeeded so far in improving their penalty kill, and the Irish’s 87.5% success rate is good for 8th in the country. They’ll be in for a tall test this weekend though, as Michigan brings the 2nd-best power-play in the nation to town. The Wolverines are converting on a whopping 32.8% of their opportunities. Sophomore forwards T.J. Hughes and Gavin Brindley lead the team with four power-play goals each.

While Michigan has soared on the power play, though, they have scuffled on the penalty kill. At 73.4%, the Wolverines are 58th of the 64 teams nationally. While Notre Dame’s power-play is by no means shooting the lights out (18.0%, 34th nationally), it will be an area Notre Dame seeks to capitalize on.

Regardless of their diametrically opposed special teams play, or their individual paths to arrive at this weekend, both Michigan and Notre Dame are faced with opportunity this weekend.  For the Wolverines, it's one last chance to set things straight with a Big Ten sweep before the holidays. For Notre Dame, it’s another opportunity to show they are for real after a stinging loss. 

Yes, so much opportunity awaits for both sides. But perhaps the most enticing opportunity of all?

The chance to beat an opponent both schools love to hate.


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