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Friday, April 12, 2024
The Observer

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Notre Dame seniors reflect ahead of critical Senior Weekend series

Set to honor 12 players, Notre Dame hockey gears up to host No. 8 Minnesota

Saturday night, pomp and circumstance will return to Compton Family Ice Arena.

Such is the style of Notre Dame hockey's Senior Night. After opening their critical Big Ten conference series against No. 8 Minnesota (18-7-5, 11-5-4) Friday night, the Irish (14-14-2, 8-10-2) will don their striking green sweaters and honor postgame the 12 members of the team that will be graduating.

Playing the Golden Gophers will doubtlessly be extra special for the four Minnesota natives among the seniors and graduate students: goaltender Ryan Bischel, defenseman Jake Boltmann, and forwards Trevor Janicke and Grant Silianoff. 

As the Irish attempt to remain in the NCAA tournament hunt during their final seasons, the weekend will be no less important for the remaining eight: goaltenders Joshua Graziano and Brayden Napoli, defensemen Ryan Siedem, Drew Bavaro and Zach Plucinski and forwards Patrick Moynihan, Landon Slaggert and Brady Bjork. 

For all those at the rink on Saturday night, though, the game will offer an opportunity to recognize a notably tight-knit graduating class.

“A big component of what we take pride in is the relationships that we’ve built this year,” Boltmann said. “I feel like we’ve kind of developed a culture that everyone has a voice here.”

Alternate captain Janicke, in his fifth year with the Irish, agrees.

“This was far and away the most inclusive group — the most inclusive senior class — that I’ve seen [and] been a part of,” he added. 

Each graduating player has their own significant story, but both Janicke and Boltmann in particular have legacies that have led them to Notre Dame. 

Boltmann, for one, has followed in the skates of a long line of Edina, Minnesota, natives who have laced up for the Irish. 

“Being from Edina, there’s a bunch of guys that have played at Notre Dame — Anders Lee, Dylan Malmquist — guys that I looked up to,” Boltmann said. “When I was growing up, my dream was to play Edina High School hockey, and then you want to do what those guys went on to do, so you want to play college hockey.”

In 2019, Boltmann won a Minnesota State High School Championship with the Hornets. In spring of 2021, he continued the Edina legacy at Notre Dame when he enrolled with the Irish.

“There’s a big alumni group of Notre Dame and Edina,” he said. “Growing up, watching them play in high school, and then seeing them play at Notre Dame, and now I’m doing what my role models were doing, it’s pretty sweet.”

Janicke, on the other hand, has essentially had his sights set on the Golden Dome since birth. Janicke’s dad, Curtis, played hockey himself at Notre Dame from 1989-1993, and he raised Trevor and younger brother Justin as ardent Notre Dame fans. The two have now shared three years together suiting up for the Irish, sometimes even playing on the same line. 

“I knew the Notre Dame fight song when I was like 3 years old,” Trevor recalled. “For my brother as well, it’s been our dream to come here.”

The Janicke family has been fortunate, too, to have a little extra brother time. With Justin enrolling a year early in 2021 and Trevor staying to play a graduate student season this year, the brothers have played together for three times as long as they thought they would.

“It’s been super cool, just for my whole family … I have two younger sisters that are doing their own thing with dance and gymnastics, and when JJ and I were on different teams they had like four different teams every weekend. Now we’re both together at Notre Dame, we see them so much more.”

Sometimes it’s history, other times it is family that can make an experience significant. Above all though, these seniors say Notre Dame has had its impact, too. In their four (or more) years, Janicke and Boltmann have seen Notre Dame grow into a home, just like many other University seniors — regardless of varsity sports team status.

“I was walking to Eddy Street yesterday with Bischel and we were just kind of talking,” Janicke said. “We’re [both in our] fifth year, we’re both like, ‘This is home.’ The biggest constant in our lives for the last five years is being at Notre Dame. I even say when I go to Minnesota, I say, ‘Alright, I’m excited to go back home,’ back to Notre Dame. This is my home, you know?”

With a home comes many positive memories. Janicke counts the 2022 Senior Night win over Michigan, as well as that year’s NCAA tournament run, among his favorites. For Boltmann, moments like the one to come this weekend — Senior Nights — stick out.

“After the game, when the whole team’s on the ice, and all the seniors that have been here and put their blood sweat and tears into the program get recognized — as a younger guy, those are the guys I looked up to,” he said. “And to see them and their families, and all the sacrifices they’ve made for them to get to this spot at this program, it’s pretty cool.”

For this year’s edition of the Irish, those emotions will be intertwined with the importance of the two games being played. After being swept last weekend on the road at No. 4 Wisconsin, Notre Dame finds itself clinging to the fourth and final home ice spot in the Big Ten Standings. 

Perhaps more dire, the Irish sit at No. 21 in the NCAA pairwise rankings, which mimic the formula used to decide bids for the national tournament. That number is far from the desirable 12 or 13 ranking Notre Dame would need to feel comfortable with its playoff chances. Needing to make up ground, they face a difficult task with just four games remaining against the No. 8 Golden Gophers and No. 14 Michigan Wolverines.

“We’ve done a little team discussion, some soul-searching the last couple days,” Janicke said. “Obviously with the way things went last weekend, and kind of beating ourselves both nights, it’s something that we have addressed and we’re hopefully going to learn from. And that’s the thing: we’ve learned so many lessons this year, we’ve learned a ton of lessons. And you know, now’s the time of year to show that we have learned those lessons.”

“We’re not leaving anything on the table this year. And that’s something that I think we might’ve done last year, is kind of walked away and felt like there’s still something left, and that’s not going to happen this year.”

This crucial weekend for Notre Dame’s regular season home slate begins with a 7:30 p.m. puck drop on Friday. Following Saturday’s 6 p.m. game, the Irish will honor their 12 seniors and graduate students, as well as senior hockey manager Renee Maslak. 

Golden Gophers are red hot

Minnesota will arrive in South Bend having won nine of their last 11 games. The Golden Gophers swept Penn State at home last weekend, shutting out the Nittany Lions 3-0 on both nights.

“Maybe the hottest team in the Big Ten is Minnesota,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said this week.

The impressive dual shutout against Penn State is a part of a broader defensive crackdown for the Golden Gophers, who have allowed at most a single goal in each of their last five games. A defense corps featuring six underclassmen has come together in recent weeks to post consistent stingy performances. With 24 points, freshman Sam Rinzel leads Gopher defensemen in points.

Among a star-studded forward crop, the Gophers have eight NHL draft picks, including first rounders Jimmy Snuggerud (St. Louis Blues) and Oliver Moore (Chicago Blackhawks). Snuggerud, a sophomore with a lethal shot, leads the team with 18 goals. Junior Rhett Pitlick, a fifth-round pick of Montreal, sports a team-best 32 points.

The last time Minnesota allowed a goal was Feb. 3 against Wisconsin, when Jack Horbach scored at 5:54 of the first period. That gives Minnesota graduate student netminder Justen Close an active shutout streak of 179:06. 

When the puck drops Friday at Compton, start your watches.

Notre Dame dinged up, dealing with discipline issues

Notre Dame enters the weekend with a few health and discipline concerns.  

“We’re dinged up right now,” Jackson said. “We are scraping right to the bottom of our depth chart.”

Notre Dame went without senior forward Grant Silianoff last weekend, while senior defenseman Zach Plucinski was forced to leave the game earlier, according to Jackson. 

Perhaps of more concern for Irish fans is Notre Dame’s recent discipline issue. Averaging 13 penalty minutes per game, Notre Dame is the ninth-most penalized team in the country. In the two games at Wisconsin last weekend, Notre Dame took a combined 61 minutes in penalties, including three game misconducts.

“I thought we took too many penalties, too many unnecessary penalties,” Jackson said. “Even though our penalty kill was great, that’s minutes played that could be 5-on-5.”

Notre Dame will aim to stay out of the box and stay sharp on the kill in order to succeed against Minnesota. The Gophers click at 23.9% on the power-play, good for 15th-best in the country and 3rd-best in the Big Ten.

Bischel, Close named Richter semifinalists

On Wednesday, the Hockey Commissioner’s Association announced that both starting goaltenders this weekend had been named semifinalists for the Mike Richter Award, given to college hockey’s top goalie.

Both Minnesota’s Justen Close and Notre Dame’s Ryan Bischel are graduate students, and both are two-time semifinalists.

This season, Close is sporting a .926 save percentage and a 2.25 goals against average. With 920 saves to his name, Bischel has made the most stops of any goalie in the country, and has a .927 save percentage. Close and Bischel have played the second and third-most minutes, respectively, in the nation.

Bischel edged Close for the Big Ten goalie of the year award last season.