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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame rejoins rankings, takes hot streak to Minnesota

Senior forward Landon Slaggert skates during Notre Dame's game against Michigan State at Compton Family Ice Arena on Mar. 3, 2023.

On its first six-game unbeaten streak since November 2021, Notre Dame hockey hits the road this weekend. The No. 17 Irish (6-3-2, 2-0-2 Big Ten) will visit No. 6 Minnesota (5-3-2, 1-2-1 Big Ten). Last weekend, the Irish swept Ohio State on home ice, taking sole possession of third place in the Big Ten with 9 points. This is Notre Dame’s second conference road trip after opening the month with two ties at Penn State.

In 72 meetings, Minnesota leads the all-time series with 41 wins to Notre Dame’s 25. Last season, the Golden Gophers posed the toughest in-conference challenge for Notre Dame, taking 10 of 12 available points from the Irish. Minnesota has swept one of its two series with the Irish in each of the last three seasons, doing so in the Twin Cities in October 2021 and November 2022. Still, head coach Jeff Jackson and company look forward to competing at 3M Arena at Mariucci, one of four 10,000-seat buildings in college hockey.

“Mariucci’s a great barn. It’s one of the biggest in the country, and they usually have a full house every time we play,” Jackson said. “For players and coaches alike, you’re more into it when there’s big crowds and there’s a great environment. It just gets you going.”

The trip to the State of Hockey doubles as a trip home for eight Irish players. Notre Dame’s Janicke brothers and Nelson brothers hail from the Land of 10,000 Lakes. So do graduate goaltender Ryan Bischel, senior defenseman Jake Boltmann, freshman forward Maddox Fleming and senior forward Grant Silianoff.

“These kids, they basically get raised on Gopher hockey,” Jackson said. “But during the development of their careers, that kind of changes as they get older just based on specific interests they have. Part of the reason we have so many Minnesota kids on our roster is because, generally, those kids are really good in school…For us, it’s not unusual to get Minnesota kids, and it goes way back to Lefty Smith’s era. Recruiting in Minnesota’s kinda been one of the prime recruiting areas for Notre Dame, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

Gauging the Golden Gophers

Coming off back-to-back Frozen Four appearances under Bob Motzko, Minnesota was the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten. And though Wisconsin has stolen the title of conference frontrunner for now, the Golden Gophers have all the right weapons for another deep run.

This season, Minnesota has already played six games against opponents inside the nation’s top 10. It started 3-0-0, impressively shutting out current No. 2 North Dakota in Grand Forks. However, since summiting the national rankings in late October, the Gophers have quieted down. After grabbing 4 points at Michigan last weekend, they own a 2-3-2 record in their last seven games.

“They still bring in some of the top players every year. So it’s not rebuilding for them, it’s just reloading,” Jackson said of Minnesota. “It starts with their goaltender, with Justen Close being one of the best goalies in the country.”

One of Minnesota’s top returners, Close has taken off over the past two seasons. During that timeframe, the Canadian netminder played to a 40-15-1 record with a .926 save percentage. This year, Close has a .919 save percentage after denying 74 total shots last weekend in Ann Arbor. The matchup in net will certainly be worth a watch this week, as Close and his 11 career shutouts square off with Bischel, a fellow graduate student with 10.

Up front, Minnesota lost two major talents in Logan Cooley and Matthew Knies. The two already have 19 points in 30 combined NHL games this season. At this point, the Gophers have looked to replace Cooley and Knies by committee. They have two freshmen, Sam Rinzel and Oliver Moore — both first-round picks of Chicago — leading the team in assists. Two sophomores pace the team in goals, beginning with 7 from Jimmy Snuggerud, a first-round St. Louis choice. Right behind, fourth-round Rangers selection Brody Lamb has 6.

On the blue line, Minnesota is working to cover the loss of NHL-caliber players in Brock Faber and Jackson LaCombe. Having five returning defensemen is a good place to start. Fifth-rounder Mike Koster headlines a young, but promising group of players tasked with defending Close in net.

“They are usually pretty sound on the back end. I’m sure that hasn’t changed that much even though they lost a lot back there,” Jackson said. “And the same thing up front. They lost a fair bit but, again, they replaced that with more skill and speed and talent, so it’s not like there’s gonna be a big drop off for them. You just assume that it’s gonna be a good transition game — a fast, high-tempo game.”

Bischel and Slaggert earn Big Ten Stars of the Week

Notre Dame received a handful of strong individual contributions over the weekend beginning with two of its captains. Ryan Bischel stopped 60 of 61 shots en route to the conference’s First Star. The Irish alternate captain stopped 34 Buckeye shots on Friday before pitching a 26-save shutout in game two. 

In 11 games this season, Bischel ranks third in the nation with 317 saves and second with a .941 save percentage. He now has 10 career shutouts, but none against Minnesota. Bischel will look to improve a .910 career save percentage against the Golden Gophers as he returns to his home state this weekend.

While Bischel stopped the puck, senior forward Landon Slaggert made all the right plays with it. The captain scored a power-play goal Friday, adding his first 3 assists of the season a night later. His efforts resulted in a Third Star selection from the conference.

For Jackson, veteran players like Bischel and Slaggert have helped younger players recognize the importance of every game.

“It’s not like junior hockey when these kids are accustomed to playing 60, 70 games. And then they get to college hockey and they have the same mindset that, if you have a bad night, you can come back the next night and win, and it doesn’t have that much of an impact in the big picture because you’re playing 70 games,” he said. “But in college hockey, even one loss can set you behind for making the NCAA Tournament. So it’s almost like every Friday and Saturday in college hockey is no different than every Saturday in college football. It has that much meaning because you don’t have a lot of wiggle room to lose a lot of games.”

Notre Dame looks to carry that sense of urgency into a pair of 8 p.m. puck drops Friday and Saturday in Minneapolis.