EAST LANSING, Mi. -- If there’s any team in the country that has Notre Dame’s number on the ice right now, it’s Michigan State. After shouldering a sweep at the hands of the No. 7 Spartans this weekend, the Irish have one win in their last eight tries against MSU.
The series presented one final chance for both teams to make a statement before the holiday break. With 5-2 and 2-1 victories, Michigan State cemented itself as the team to beat in the Big Ten. The Spartans continue to lead the conference with 25 points and an unbeaten record at Munn Ice Arena.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame fell back to .500 for the first time since Oct. 26. The Irish now have the same 8-8-2 record that carried them to last season’s holiday break and occupy fourth in the conference standings. Ranked No. 20 entering the weekend, Jeff Jackson’s team will likely spend the next three weeks without a ranking.
“We just didn’t generate enough offensively,” Jackson said. “It’s gonna be the biggest thing we’re gonna have to solve going into the second half – finding a way to be more productive off faceoffs, off [the] power-play, off the rush. We’re just not connected.”
Though Jackson doubted the validity of the 56-37 total, both teams shot the puck well Friday night. The 56 belonged to Michigan State, who fired off 22 first-period shots, more than senior goaltender Ryan Bischel had ever seen in a game’s first 20 minutes.
But Bischel and his MSU counterpart Trey Augustine denied everything, carrying a scoreless contest to the first intermission. Michigan State largely dominated the middle part of the period, forcing turnovers at the offensive blue line and executing crisp zone entries. Bookending the stretch were quality Irish chances in tight for junior forward Justin Janicke and senior forward Landon Slaggert.
The Irish prompt pulled momentum back early in the second, killing back-to-back penalties and earning a shortened power play of their own. During the 46-second man advantage, senior defenseman Drew Bavaro clanked the post, the first of three pipes Notre Dame would hit on the weekend.
Three minutes later, Tiernan Shoudy bested Bavaro in a net-front battle to open the scoring. Tanner Kelly found him on a cross-crease pass, and Shoudy jammed the puck into a vacant cage.
Notre Dame then needed only 79 seconds to even the ledger. As its second line poked away at a dangerous rebound chance, the puck squeaked out to the top of the crease for senior forward Grant Silianoff. With the Spartans pushing bodies into their netminder, Silianoff potted his 3rd goal of the year just before the net became dislodged.
“The [Spartans] play a very aggressive style, and it’s about trying to get pucks in behind them,” Jackson said. “We did that a fair bit, but we didn’t capitalize on it … But for the most part, I thought we did a good job getting out of our zone. We did a pretty good job once we got into the offensive zone. We just need to sustain it a little bit more.”
Shortly after, the Irish wasted a minute of a power play with too many men on the ice. The Spartans then scored on their ensuing 5-on-4, as Joey Larson chipped a rebound over Bischel’s shoulder after initially hammering a one-time into the latter’s chest.
Michigan State’s lead expanded for the first time when unsportsmanlike conduct penalties carried a 4-on-4 situation into the third period. Just 18 seconds into the frame, top NHL prospect Artyom Levshunov went bar-down on Bischel from the outside of the circle. Amid a 51-save night, the Irish netminder certainly wanted that shot back.
Halfway through the period, MSU found a chance to bury Notre Dame. Augustine made a massive save on Silianoff, bringing the sellout crowd at Munn to a standing ovation. Their energy would have grown all the more palpable if the Spartans had killed off the ensuing penalty, but the Irish did not let it happen. With MSU’s penalty-killers pressuring the points all weekend, Notre Dame moved the puck around quickly, locating Hunter Strand in a soft spot at the hash marks. The junior forward whipped it upstairs for his second goal in as many games, bringing the deficit back down to one.
“Hunter’s been practicing really, really well,” Jackson said. “I’m glad he got rewarded tonight, but we need depth scoring. There’s no question about that. These teams are just trying to neutralize our top line, and if we don’t get depth scoring, we’re not gonna score.”
Inside the final nine minutes, MSU answered back with a second power-play goal. Bischel, whose rebound control weakened in the final frame, left a second-chance puck available in the crease. As he fell onto his backside, Isaac Howard poked it over the line to make it 4-2.
Notre Dame’s penalty kill, which entered the weekend at second-best in the Big Ten, wasn’t as sharp to start the series.
“The biggest thing is [MSU] had two power-play goals,” Jackson pointed out. “And that’s something that’s been a staple for us this year is our penalty kill. Giving up those two goals was a difference at the end.”
Daniel Russell put the game to bed 16 seconds after Jackson pulled Bischel for the extra attacker.
Having lost a series opener for the first time since opening night, Notre Dame needed a Saturday response to avoid losing five out of six games. Instead, the Irish scoring woes pressed on. Augustine blanked the visitors until graduate student forward Patrick Moynihan tallied with 14.7 seconds left in the game.
“We’ve got good players, [but] we’ve gotta figure out what gives us the best chance to score goals,” Jackson said. “[The Spartans] were defending pretty well, but we’ve gotta have more than that.”
The night began with back-and-forth action before MSU struck first at 6:46 of the opening period. Bischel thought he had the puck frozen as he trapped a centering pass between his stick and the right post. But the Spartans freed it, setting up a dirty goal for Karsen Dorwart and the top MSU line.
Later in the period, freshman forward Danny Nelson hit the post from a sharp angle. The puck barely stayed out as it trickled behind Augustine. Notre Dame added a few more close calls early in the second, but MSU took complete control of the middle frame starting with a power-play goal less than four minutes in. Another rebound from a one-timer sat available in the crease, where Red Savage flicked it home.
Notre Dame discovered new life after the second intermission but found everything but the back of the net. Senior defenseman Zach Plucinski dinged the post at the third period’s one-third mark. Then, leading Irish scorer Slaggert couldn’t put a short-handed breakaway chance past Augustine. Though Moynihan’s late breakthrough spoiled a shutout, it still left Notre Dame emptyhanded for the 150-mile trip back to South Bend.
The Irish will resume their season and wrap up the calendar year by hosting Augustana on Dec. 30 and 31. Big Ten play returns the weekend of Jan. 5 with No. 6 Wisconsin visiting Compton Family Ice Arena. Notre Dame will see Michigan State again on home ice during the first weekend of February.