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Friday, April 19, 2024
The Observer

20231201, Coach Jackson's 400th win, Compton Family Ice Arena, Hockey, Meghan Lange, University of Michigan-59.JPG

Notre Dame concludes regular season at No. 17 Michigan

Big Ten Tournament home ice on the line this weekend in Ann Arbor

Jeff Jackson will likely always downplay Notre Dame hockey’s recent success at Yost Ice Arena. 

After all, the Irish head coach has seen a lot of hockey. In his 19th season behind the Notre Dame bench, Jackson coached his 1,000th college hockey game in last Friday’s 6-1 win for this year’s Irish (15-15-2, 9-11-2) over No. 8 Minnesota. Between stints at Lake Superior State, Notre Dame and even his first coaching job as a grad assistant at Michigan, Jackson knows the Wolverine’s home rink pretty well, too.  

“I don’t think there’s anything special about it,” Jackson said. “Just like some things happen in streaks, sometimes they’re understandable why, but then there’s the ones where you’re really not sure why, it just happens.”

Though Jackson may deny it, Notre Dame’s success on the road at Michigan is hard to ignore. In their last 10 games at Yost Ice Arena, the Irish are 8-1-1, with their lone loss coming in the 2022 Big Ten Tournament Semifinals. Notre Dame has not lost in the regular season at Yost since Nov. 9, 2018. 

“I think every team that goes into Yost feels like, you know, they’re going to have to bring their ‘A’ game to have success in that building,” Jackson said. “They know there’s going to be good crowds, they know it’s going to be hard hockey to play, under the influence of noise and intimidation. I think guys like that.”

Home ice on the line

This weekend, as Notre Dame travels north to conclude its regular season against the No. 17 Wolverines (15-12-3, 8-10-2-0-1), the Irish hope to duplicate the recent success. Particularly, they would like to replicate last year’s late-February series, which saw Notre Dame steal Friday’s game in a shootout and Saturday’s in overtime, unexpectedly securing the Irish home ice for the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

This season, like last, Notre Dame’s chances for home ice in the tournament are slim. The Irish need to take five of six points this weekend to clinch home ice, though Notre Dame would still hold onto a glimmer of hope if they fail to do so. With a bye-week to end the season, Notre Dame may have to sweat out the results of the Michigan-Minnesota series on March 1-2 to find out their postseason fate.

Michigan, on the other hand, has the ball in their court. They trail the Irish by 3 points in the Big Ten standings for the final home ice spot, with two games in hand. The Wolverines also get to try their hand head-to-head against Notre Dame this weekend.

That battle for Big Ten home ice becomes even more important knowing that the two sides are likely to match up against each other in the first round. With 46 and 42 points, respectively, Michigan State and Wisconsin top the Big Ten charts, and are likely to remain there. Minnesota, who is idle this weekend, sits in third with 37 points. Ohio State — despite sweeping Wisconsin last weekend — is guaranteed to finish last, and Penn State needs to make up 8 points of ground on Michigan. The Nittany Lions themselves will have their hands full this weekend, hosting a Wisconsin team that is sure to be motivated.

So where does that leave Michigan and Notre Dame? Smack in the middle, duking it out for the fourth seed in the conference. With the conference’s top team getting a first round bye, the fourth seed will host the fifth seed in the quarterfinals. 

Securing home ice may be particularly important for the Fighting Irish, too. Thirteen of Notre Dame’s 15 wins have come at Compton Family Ice Arena, and the Irish are just 2-7-2 away from home. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Notre Dame will have to win the Big Ten Tournament in order to make the NCAA Tournament. Starting conference play at home would certainly aid that cause. Michigan, with a 25% chance of securing an at-large bid to the national tournament, would like to start their postseason road at home too. The Wolverines have won each of the last two Big Ten tournaments and started with home ice for both.

Discipline, swagger will be key

Neither team comes into this important weekend riding a high. In fact, both sides spent most of last week licking their wounds. Two weeks ago, Michigan suffered a sweep at the hands of arch rival No. 4 Michigan State by 5-1 and 3-2 scores, while Notre Dame was pushed around at No. 6 Wisconsin, also getting swept. Both the Wolverines and Irish responded well last weekend, though Notre Dame’s split with Minnesota (6-1 win, 3-2 overtime loss) may have been more confidence-building than Michigan’s split at Penn State.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this weekend’s series for the Fighting Irish will be discipline. After taking 61 minutes in penalties over two games at Wisconsin, Notre Dame was whistled for only 10 minutes last weekend against Minnesota. Still, Notre Dame is averaging 12.5 penalty minutes per game, 12th highest in the country. Michigan, who boasts the nation’s top power-play, will want to exploit that. At 34.2% on the man-advantage, the Wolverines have scored 30.5% of their team’s goals on the power-play. Stay out of the box, and the Irish could hamper Michigan’s scoring by a third. 

Notre Dame could even flip the script though by exploiting Michigan in the discipline category. The Wolverines, too, often get in penalty trouble, and are penalized fifth most per game in the country. While Notre Dame’s power-play, at 18.4%, is middling at best, spending time up a man is not something Jackson’s group will complain about.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the series, though, may be mental. While their head coach might play it off, Notre Dame’s attitude in games at Yost Ice Arena has borne fruit over the last four seasons. The Irish possess a certain swagger when they lace up the skates in Ann Arbor. Its source is no mystery: rivalry.

“Notre Dame-Michigan, it’s a rivalry. They may have a bigger rival in Michigan State, but I would like to believe Notre Dame’s up there too,” Jackson said. “When I came to Notre Dame, it wasn’t that way early on, but it became that way. When you’re playing teams in big moments and big games, that’s how rivalries develop. And we’ve had our share of those types of games with Michigan over the years.”

Indeed, matchups between Notre Dame and Michigan always find that extra flare. Their last four regular season meetings at Yost have gone to overtime. That fact alone may be warning enough: If you’re sitting down to watch Notre Dame and Michigan this weekend, buckle up.

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