About a month ago, Notre Dame hockey played perhaps its most frustrating series of the season. Wisconsin had entered South Bend and became the first team to cleanly sweep the Irish at a full-capacity Compton Family Ice Arena in four years. The weekend, which ended with a 7-4 loss, left the Irish on a five-game Big Ten losing skid.
Since that point on Jan. 6, Notre Dame (14-12-2, 8-8-2 Big Ten) has stabilized winning four of its last six games. Now, the Irish travel to Madison for another crack at the fourth-ranked Badgers (20-6-2, 11-4-1 Big Ten).
Whether they look at the aforementioned home sweep or last weekend's dichotomous split with No. 9 Michigan State, the Irish know there's work to do this weekend at the Kohl Center.
Conference Context: Big Ten interior tightening up
Barring significant changes down the stretch, the Big Ten standings seem to have molded into three tiers. At the top, Michigan State and Wisconsin vie for the elusive first-round bye in the conference tournament. Currently, MSU leads with 40 points to the Badgers' 35, but Wisconsin holds two games in hand. The two frontrunners will meet again in Madison during the regular season's final weekend.
Behind them, a group of three surrounds the cutoff point for home ice in the Big Ten quarterfinals. Minnesota, whom the Irish will face at home next weekend, paces it with 29 points. Next is Notre Dame with 27 and Michigan with 25 (plus two games in hand). Finally, Penn State and Ohio State, the two Big Ten teams Notre Dame has swept this season, bottom out the conference with 17 and 7 points, respectively.
One glance at the Irish schedule, which concludes with a trip to Ann Arbor, tells you that Notre Dame will wrap up with the three closest teams to it in the standings. February always carries more weight, but years like this one take it to another level.
Saturday night's not alright for sweeping
This season, whenever Notre Dame matches up with the nation's best teams, one of two things tends to happen. The Irish either fail to find positive results (see the Boston College game, Michigan State road series or Wisconsin home series) or dominate the series opener. Adding to the latter, every time Notre Dame has defeated a top-15 team this year, it has done so on Friday night. And the scoring margin in those four games sees the underdog Irish ahead 18-5.
Last Friday's battle with then-No. 8 Michigan State added to that total. Notre Dame pulled away from a game that remained tied for 51 of the first 52 minutes, downing the Spartans by a 4-1 count.
“I liked our game Friday. We played the way we need to play in these types of games,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “It's like a playoff game — it was 1-1 into the third period, and scoring that second goal was a huge thing for us. So we have to continue to try to do that when we're in those tight games, try to get that next goal.”
But, as has been the case all season, Notre Dame missed out on a statement sweep. Michigan State blanked the Irish, 4-0, in game two, prolonging the Saturday setbacks in South Bend. In series finales following the four top-15 wins mentioned, Notre Dame has given up 18 goals while scoring just 4. It's a hump that the Irish must traverse in the season's dying weeks, and it's a trend to watch for if they get after the Badgers this coming Friday.
Irish and Badgers have visited both extremes
During the first weekend of January, Notre Dame hosted Wisconsin in a standalone Big Ten series. With both teams built around defense and missing a freshman forward due to the World Juniors, the weekend figured to see minimal offensive output. That's exactly what transpired in Friday's game. Wisconsin scored the first goal midway through the second period before Notre Dame answered with a shorthanded tally just before intermission.
After the Badgers took the lead early in period three, the Irish received a golden opportunity to steal the series opener. They earned a five-minute power play that covered the third quarter of the final period but never cashed in, losing the game 2-1. Those power-play problems, the deciding factor in that contest, appeared again in the Michigan State series. After showing positive signs in the preceding Penn State series, the Notre Dame man advantage went 0-for-8 against the Spartans, missing six opportunities on a scoreless Saturday night.
“We just need to find a way to get more consistent in every aspect of our game offensively. But power play's the most important one at this point,” Jackson said. “It's the one that, [when] you get two or three opportunities you need to score on one of them. For me, it's about doing a better job of getting control of the puck as we enter the offensive zone, getting to control the puck off of faceoffs and getting control of the puck off of puck recoveries. And then from there, it's finding a way to make the right play.”
Turning back to the Wisconsin series, Saturday's game took Friday's outstanding defense and flushed it down the drain. The Badgers, with two power-play goals, raced out to a 5-1 lead just 24 minutes in. But Notre Dame zoomed back, scoring 3 goals in the span of 3:19 in the second period. Still, Wisconsin flatlined the game with an underrated performance from backup netminder William Gramme. The freshman relieved superstar goalie Kyle McClellan after the fourth Irish goal, denying all 23 shots he faced to secure his team's sweep.
The final score of that game featured 11 combined goals. Jackson understands that, with Wisconsin being its defensive self and McCllelan back in net, the entirety of this weekend's series might not see 11 goals.
“It's gonna be tough to score this weekend, so we've gotta be satisfied with making plays, being patient and trying to capitalize when we get the opportunities off of transition,” Jackson said. “It's gonna be about a game of patience for us, so we just have to make sure that we're focused on not trying to do too much to score because we'll give up chances against. That's not how you beat a Mike Hastings type of team. You have to out-patient them, and that's not an easy thing to do.”
The Beanpot, the Mitten and the PairWise
Expanding to the national picture, college hockey continues to have a strong year. The sport is deep, its stars are performing and the championship trophy's final destination remains anyone's guess.
“There seems to be more elite teams, and I think it goes deep enough to where you're talking about 10 to 15 teams that all conceivably could win the national championship at the end of the year,” Jackson considered. “There's probably another 10 teams after that that could be in the hunt.”
Two of those elite teams, No. 1 Boston College and No. 3 Boston University, met in the annual Beanpot tournament Monday, Feb. 5. The Terriers avenged a recent Eagle sweep, advancing to the championship game on a 4-3 win at TD Garden. Another pair of elites will square off inside the Big Ten this weekend when No. 9 Michigan State encounters No. 11 Michigan. Three weekends ago, the two split a home-and-away with final scores of 7-1 (Michigan) and 7-5 (Michigan State). As always, their season series will close Saturday in Detroit after a Friday stop in Ann Arbor.
While home ice-seeking Notre Dame fans will back MSU in that series, national tournament hopefuls have their eyes on the PairWise rankings. Right now, the Irish sit at No. 21, only 4 points from the top 16 that make the NCAA tournament. Among teams positioned within reach of the Irish, New Hampshire and Omaha face tough draws this weekend. The former visits Boston College for a single game, while the latter spends the weekend at No. 14 Western Michigan's place.
“You can't afford to be where we're at right now playing just above .500 hockey because there's too many teams that are doing much better than that,” Jackson said. “There's gonna be teams left out of the tournament that are probably as good as some of the teams that'll be in it, for sure.”
Notre Dame looks to improve both its Big Ten and national positioning beginning at 8 p.m. Friday in Madison. Saturday's puck drop will follow at 7 p.m.