Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

20231209, Away game, Hockey, Meghan Lange, MSU, Munn Ice Arena, Night 2-2.JPG

Irish return to the ice with crucial series against MSU

With availability questions aplenty, Notre Dame hockey enters challenging final month

In recent years, Notre Dame hockey has developed a knack for performing well after extended periods of rest. Excluding season openers, the Irish are 14-4-3 in regular season games following 10 or more days of rest since 2016-17.

That’s the situation Jeff Jackson’s team faces at home this weekend against No. 8 Michigan State. Since dropping six consecutive conference games, the Irish (13-11-2, 7-7-2 Big Ten) have won three straight, including a sweep of Penn State two weeks ago. And during the first part of Notre Dame’s recent bye week, that momentum only proliferated.

“We kinda treated it as an in-season training camp,” Jackson said. “We tried to make sure we got our conditioning up, our competitiveness stayed at a high level and this week was about getting into a little bit more preparation for Michigan State.”

But as hockey fans know, even when you do everything right, the results don’t always follow. Fifty shots on goal might hand you a loss to a hot goaltender. Perfect defensive positioning could redirect a puck into your own net. For the Irish, a solid week of training has given way to a flu bug for a handful of players.

“That last week I thought we had a fair amount accomplished,” Jackson said. “But it’s been kinda set on its backside here, and for us, it’s just gonna be probably a matter of who’s healthy come Friday night.”

Whoever does suit up will face the challenge of Michigan State. The Spartans (17-6-3, 11-3-2 Big Ten) lead the conference by 5 points, clear of fourth-place Notre Dame by 13. 

On the Irish side, it’s a multi-layered prove-it weekend for several reasons. They want to flip the script on MSU, against whom they are 2-8-1 over the past 11 meetings. Notre Dame could also use a statement series within the conference. Against the three teams ahead of them, the Irish are 1-5-0 with a -9 goal differential. Those metrics stand in contrast to a 6-2-2 mark and a +18 margin against the bottom three.

Solving the Spartans

The last time Michigan State came to South Bend, it ended Notre Dame’s 2022-23 season. And though December’s sweep loss offered up no Irish retribution, this weekend may present a better chance. 

MSU, for the first time all season, has flashed in-conference vulnerability in recent weeks. The Spartans lost 7-1 to Michigan (Jan. 19) and 5-1 to Minnesota (Jan. 27) at home, a place where they started 8-0-1.

Still, Michigan State owns a strong collection of victories a month into 2024. Sparty went into Hockey Valley and handily swept Penn State three weeks ago. The Spartans bounced back from their aforementioned Michigan loss by potting 7 goals in a win at Yost Ice Arena. That’s not to mention a November sweep against Wisconsin, the highest-ranked team in the Big Ten.

“They have good depth on both their forwards and their defense, and obviously a really good goaltender, too,” Jackson said of MSU. “So I think it’s their depth that creates problems for teams, and depending upon which team they’re playing, it shows differently … I think they’re just a well-balanced team, and they do a lot of things really well.”

For Michigan State, depth has translated to the Big Ten’s most lucrative offense in league play. The skaters on Sparty’s top three forward lines average an impressive 0.82 points per game. Comparatively, Notre Dame’s top nine forwards average 0.57 points per contest. Joey Larson, the right-winger on MSU’s terrific third line, leads the team with 15 goals and 28 points.

On the blue line, the Spartans will counter an improving Irish offense with arguably the top defensive pairing in the Big Ten. Senior captain Nash Nienhuis brings 117 games of experience and a career-high 17 points. Freshman Artyom Levshunov, a projected top-five pick in the 2024 NHL draft, adds 26 points. They help protect freshman netminder Trey Augustine, who played to a .956 save percentage in the December series against Notre Dame.

Can the power play press on?

Like last season, the Irish power play has taken a while to get going. At this point, its 19.3% success rate stands a whisker ahead of Wisconsin at the bottom of the Big Ten.

But as far as the man advantage goes, Notre Dame’s last game was its best. Two Saturdays ago, the Irish went 3-for-6 on the power play with 13 shots. Most importantly, they capitalized on both special teams opportunities in the third period, turning a tight battle with Penn State into a 6-3 win.

“[The power play] starts with winning faceoffs and getting possession of the puck. And then it’s about getting into the zone with possession, it’s about entries as well,” Jackson said. “We did a better job of that, we’ve been working a little bit more on that and those details. Once we get into the zone and gain possession, then it’s a matter of making plays.”

Among other factors, improving personnel has helped the Irish power play as of late. Senior forward Landon Slaggert has kept his foot on the gas and now has 16 goals. His fellow winger, graduate student Patrick Moynihan, scored twice on the man advantage last Saturday. Also with 2 goals in that game, freshman forward Danny Nelson, who has 4 in as many games since returning from the World Juniors.

20240106, Hockey, Meghan Lange, Ohio State, Schottenstein Center-15.jpg
Senior forward Landon Slaggert celebrates his goal with teammates during Notre Dame's win over Ohio State at the Schottenstein Center on Jan. 13, 2024.

Jackson also mentioned that freshman defenseman Paul Fischer has added a spark at the power play’s flank position. With his vision and aggressiveness on the outside, Notre Dame can move more pucks into Nelson and freshman forward Cole Knuble at the bumper.

During the December series, Michigan State owned the special teams game. On the power play, MSU went 3-for-8 to Notre Dame’s 1-for-8. Overall, the Spartans still rank second in the conference with a 27% power-play success rate. Their matchup with Notre Dame’s 83% penalty kill will certainly have a say in the series’ outcome.

A February reckoning

Over the next four weekends, Notre Dame will face the rest of the Big Ten’s top five. The schedule breaks down to home series against No. 8 Michigan State and No. 9 Minnesota and trips to No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 12 Michigan.

The Irish have already faced each of those teams between November and January, going 2-6-0. Looking ahead, Jeff Jackson hopes his team can top said record in the final month.

“It’s down to crunch time, and we’re playing the best teams in the country and the conference these next four weekends,” Jackson said. “So we’re gonna have our hands full, and we’re gonna find out if we’ve had any growth since the first time we played each of those teams.”

That growth will be put to the test beginning Friday at 7:30 p.m. Saturday’s series finale will follow at 6 p.m. from Compton Family Ice Arena. Peacock will provide coverage of both games.

Sign up for our Observer Sports newsletter!
Have an Irish sports question? Ask it for our Observer Sports mailbag!