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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

Irish take step toward consistency, split with Michigan

Irish senior forward Landon Slaggert (19) wraps the puck around Jake Barczewksi's right pad to open the scoring in Notre Dame's 6-1 defeat of Michigan at Compton Family Ice Arena on Dec. 1.

Trevor Janicke gleaned a lesson from this weekend. 

“I think we saw what we are capable of,” the Irish graduate student forward said. “We’ve known, this whole year, ever since training camp, what we can do and what we are going to do, but we just need to find ways to be consistent with it and do it every period, every shift.”

While there is work to be done, Notre Dame hockey was perhaps at its most consistent in a split with No. 13 Michigan. Friday night featured Notre Dame’s strongest effort of the season, a 6-1 win that earned the Irish coaching staff a dazzling milestone win. Despite the 2-1 loss Saturday, Notre Dame continued its strong play.

“When we are connected as a team, I feel like we are personally unstoppable,” senior forward Hunter Strand said. “Just moving forward, we need to figure out how to bring that every night.”

That unstoppable potential was on display this weekend more than ever. Notre Dame physically imposed its will on the visiting Wolverines for a full 60 minutes on Friday, turning Compton Family Ice Arena into a party. On Saturday, faced with pushback from the Wolverines, there were still moments when the Irish dominated — including a bone-rattling hit by captain Landon Slaggert to set up the lone goal by Strand.

“When we are going on all cylinders, we are unstoppable,” Janicke echoed. 

Admittedly, performing on all cylinders at all times is exceptionally challenging in the Big Ten. With five of the league’s seven teams ranked in the top 20, there are no nights off. Yet, the result this weekend cements Notre Dame as a true contender in the conference. With 15 points in eight games, the Irish sit in third. They trail only second-place Wisconsin and first-place Michigan State, who they will travel to play next weekend. 

Finding consistency against such a strong schedule will continue to be the challenge for Notre Dame. But the Irish took a step towards that goal this weekend and there’s still plenty of hockey left to play.

“It’s a long season,” Janicke said. “Our end goal is not to be in first place in the Big Ten at Christmas. Our end goal is to be there at the end of the year and then obviously playoffs and the national championship as well.”

Friday: Notre Dame 6, Michigan 1

As the final buzzer sounded on Friday night, Irish skaters piled over the bench and skated to meet their goaltender. After the usual assortment of head-taps and back-pats, each skated back to the bench. One by one, they took the gloves off their right hand and shook hands with head coach Jeff Jackson. 

In his 18th year at the helm, Jackson held a record of 399-252-73 behind the Irish bench before the weekend. With a 6-1 victory over rival Michigan, Jackson and longtime assistant coaches Andy Slaggert and Paul Pooley, recorded milestone victory number 400.

“For me, individual accolades are meaningless,” Jackson said. “I’d rather have our team play like that … consistency is the biggest thing we need to find and tonight was probably our best 60-minute hockey game.”

The complete effort for the Irish began with an excellent start. Notre Dame outshot Michigan 6-1 in the game’s first 7 minutes. 

“Definitely good to get off to a fast start,” Notre Dame captain Landon Slaggert said. “I thought our start was awesome from the team and it really just carried on throughout the game.”

Slaggert was the first to capitalize on the early momentum. The senior broke through for the first goal of the game, powering down the wing and tucking the puck past Jake Barczewski’s right pad. 

Michigan mustered a response when its top-five power-play tied the game shortly after. On a 5-on-3 power-play, sophomore forward TJ Hughes sifted a point shot through traffic that beat Notre Dame goalie Ryan Bischel. It was to be the only blemish in a 27-save performance for the Irish netminder. 

With the game tied at one, Michigan looked at its most threatening. Faced with adversity, Notre Dame did what it could not in last week’s 6-1 loss to Boston College: pick itself up off the mat and respond.

Indeed, the Irish barely had gotten their legs back under them from the penalty kill when junior forward Justin Janicke put them back out in front 2-1. Freshman forward Brennan Ali started the scoring effort with a smashing hit in the neutral zone. Janicke followed up on the broken play to hammer the puck five-hole from the blue paint.

“I think that’s one thing that this group’s learning, is how to be resilient and how to respond,” Slaggert said. “I think that’s what mature teams do.”

Notre Dame’s resilience presented itself in the team’s consistency. The Irish came out of the locker room in the second period and controlled the game. They outshot Michigan 13-5 and added two goals — one early and one late — to take a 4-1 lead to the third. Graduate student forward Patrick Moynihan scored his fourth of the year 53 seconds into the frame and Slaggert scored again in the final 2 minutes.

With 2 more goals tonight, Slaggert pushed his team-leading total to 12, which is second-best in the country. With his third 2-goal game of the year, Slaggert is no longer simply off to a hot start: he’s playing like one of the best scorers in the country.

“He’s been our most consistent player all year,” Jackson said. “He’s not looking for personal accolades, he just goes out and plays as hard as he can.”

Notre Dame scored early and late again in the third, never taking its foot on the gas. Junior forward Tyler Carpenter notched his fourth from freshman forward Maddox Fleming and, with less than a minute to go, freshman forward Danny Nelson scored his third. More importantly, Notre Dame possessed the puck and dictated play. The Irish did not allow a single high-danger shot in the third period. Notre Dame was consistent on both sides of the puck.

“Obviously we are young, but we are starting to find that and get into our groove,” Slaggert said. “That consistency is something Coach [Jackson] talks about quite a bit, so we are starting to find that and hopefully we can keep that going.”

Saturday: Michigan 2, Notre Dame 1

Saturday’s contest was a classic Michigan-Notre Dame affair: bitter and close. Sore from the previous night’s loss, the Wolverines responded with a 2-1 victory.

“Give [the Wolverines] credit. They elevated their game,” Jackson said. “I didn’t think we played poorly, but we lost our juice after the second goal. We weren’t as effective.” 

That second goal, off the tape of Michigan sophomore forward Dylan Duke, stood up as the game-winner. Scored with 4:50 remaining in the second period, Michigan took advantage of a rare blatant Notre Dame miscue to take the lead for good. After graduate student defenseman Ryan Siedem turned the puck over on the wall, Duke snatched it, quickly moving it to Hughes in the middle of the ice. After another pass to Gavin Brindley, Duke finished the tic-tac-toe play on the back door.

Notre Dame had its chances in the third, including a late power play, but Michigan proved better defensively. The Wolverines challenged Notre Dame’s ability to create offense throughout the game and Barczewski backstopped those efforts with 28 saves.

“We didn’t have as many clean exits and clean entrances as we did last night,” Jackson said. “But give them credit for clogging things up more, making it hard on us.”

Needing a win to stay above .500 and playing in its last game before a lengthy holiday break, Michigan entered the game hungry. Early on, the Wolverines were far more of a physical presence than Friday. Chicago Blackhawks draft pick Frank Nazar III struck for his 8th goal just 6 minutes into the contest, giving the Wolverines a 1-0 lead. Michigan built momentum after the goal, controlling play for much of the first period. Notre Dame still managed 12 shots on Barczewski in the frame, but not with ease.

The tide turned, if briefly, late in the first period. Notre Dame’s top line of Slaggert, Nelson and Moynihan put together the game’s most dominating shift, pinning Michigan in its own zone for about a minute and a half. Michigan looked as if it had weathered the storm when it finally regained possession. Nelson and Moynihan, at the end of their shift, skated to the bench — but Slaggert did not. He came across the ice and leveled a hit on Michigan defenseman Marshall Warren, dislodging the puck. Justin Janicke intercepted it and found Strand on the back side for a tap-in.

“I give our guys credit for coming back and tying the game,” Jackson said. “But we didn’t build off that.”

The Strand goal and its preceding moments would be Notre Dame’s highlight of the game. In the second period, Michigan quelled any momentum the Irish attempted to build before eventually taking the lead on Duke’s goal. 

The opportunity to earn a second conference sweep over a hated rival slipped through Notre Dame’s hands. But what the Irish showed on the ice was likely more important than the final scores. The strength of Michigan’s play Saturday showed something too: winning two is incredibly tough.

“I expect there will be a lot of splits this year in the Big Ten,” Jackson remarked.