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Saturday, April 13, 2024
The Observer

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Irish take 4 points from Minnesota, shore up conference position

Jimmy Snuggerud's overtime winner dampens an otherwise excellent showing from Notre Dame

Despite a disappointing dismount, Notre Dame hockey accomplished exactly what it needed to this weekend. With an at-large NCAA tournament bid likely impossible, the Irish have focused on setting themselves up for Big Ten postseason success. Taking four points at home from No. 8 Minnesota represents a good start.

“We played one of the hottest teams in the country — a top-10 team — toe-to-toe all weekend,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “[It was a] disappointing finish, but [we had] a good weekend for the most part. I’m pleased with [how] the guys battled as hard as they could.”

Notre Dame’s performance allowed it to take a season series from Minnesota for the first time in six years. Before an exasperating Senior Night loss in overtime, the Irish played whack-a-mole with the Golden Gophers in a 6-1 Friday win. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, Notre Dame remains ahead of Michigan by 3 points for home ice in the Big Ten quarterfinals.

Friday:  Notre Dame 6, Minnesota 1

When Jeff Jackson earned his 400th Irish head coaching victory on Dec. 1, Notre Dame romped Michigan 6-1. When he coached his 1000th Division I Friday night, his team did the same to Minnesota. The Irish, despite missing two top-nine forwards, senior Grant Silianoff and graduate student Trevor Janicke, cruised offensively. More impressively, they did so with 24 hours’ notice on the latter’s injury, which he suffered in practice Thursday.

The scoring began with Notre Dame’s makeshift second line of freshmen Brennan Ali, Danny Nelson and Carter Slaggert. Midway through the first period, the three swooped into the zone against a trio of Gopher skaters. Nelson centered for a prime Ali look, then fired the rebound through the body of Minnesota netminder Justen Close. The puck was trickling in regardless, but Slaggert arrived on the scene and pushed it over the line for good measure.

That goal held up until 90 seconds had passed in period two. Cole Knuble, another freshman forward, buried a ridiculous feed from senior defenseman Jake Boltmann on the back door. Boltmann had skated down below the right circle before zipping a precise pass along the goal line for the waiting.

As the period progressed, the first-line center wouldn’t have to wait long for another goal. Parked at the hash marks, Knuble redirected a Nelson one-timer that was clearly heading wide right. The redirection angled the puck just inside the far post, extending Notre Dame’s lead to 3-0.

After Friday’s game, senior captain Landon Slaggert described the emergence of Knuble, his linemate.

“I think we’re definitely hitting our stride at the right time right now,” Slaggert said. “[Cole Knuble’s] an easy player to play with, he finds you in the soft areas and stuff. He’s definitely playing well, [and] it’s nice to see that translate on the score sheet, but I don’t think that’s how he rates his game. He’s been doing well all year, but it’s nice to see it kinda show up now.”

Mere moments after Knuble’s 4th goal in five games, Slaggert himself would light the lamp. Off a slap shot from senior defenseman Zach Plucinski, he deposited a massive rebound at the left face-off dot. The captain’s team-leading 18th goal forced Minnesota head coach Bob Motzko to pull Close, who had entered the weekend with a 179-minute shutout streak.

Inside the second period’s final four minutes, Aaron Huglen took advantage of a fallen Irish defender to capitalize on an odd-man rush. But Notre Dame erased Minnesota’s lone goal quickly, striking with 36.5 seconds to play. Nelson forced a turnover at the blue line, marching down to the dot before beating Nathan Airey glove-side. 

The Irish would take a 5-1 lead to the second intermission, using 4 freshman goals to counter the absence of experienced forwards.

“I’m proud of our guys because some guys had to come into the lineup and step up because we’re missing a couple [of] key guys,” Jackson said. “You feel for the older guys, but the younger guys are our future. They’re certainly an impactful group, so hopefully they continue to develop over the rest of the year, and they become the leaders moving into next year.”

Late in the third, Irish defenseman Drew Bavaro capped the beatdown with a power-play goal. After sniping home a wrist shot, the senior skated to center ice, grabbing the chest of his jersey and bringing everyone’s attention to the “Notre Dame” spelled out across the front. Bavaro’s swagger resembled that of the entire Irish team, which Jeff Jackson said played one of its best games of the season Friday.

Saturday: Minnesota 3, Notre Dame 2 (OT)

An emotional and highly-anticipated Senior Night game brought over 5,300 fans to Compton Family Ice Arena. And the “hockey gods” rewarded them, not only with Notre Dame donning iconic green sweaters but with one of the Big Ten’s most entertaining games this season. 

After a competitively scoreless first period, the action once again intensified in the second. Both teams potted their only 2 goals of regulation, with Minnesota striking first at 1:44 of the frame. Extended Gopher time in the Notre Dame zone resulted in Connor Kurth curling a centering feed from behind the net. The pass hit Plucinski’s skate, caroming over the Irish goal line.

Still, Notre Dame concocted an answer in less than five minutes. Junior forward Justin Janicke tallied on a transition wraparound that played out with controversy. As he swirled behind the cage, junior forward Tyler Carpenter entered the goal crease, clinging to the crossbar while his linemate slid the puck home underneath him. After a long review process, the officials ruled goaltender interference did not occur during the sequence.

Janicke’s goal served as the third in four games for a third line put together due to Silianoff’s extended absence. Justin Janicke, Carpenter and junior center Hunter Strand are all roommates, and their chemistry has flashed throughout February.

“I’ve played a lot with Hunter [Strand] since I’ve been here but not a lot with Tyler [Carpenter]. I think he’s been a key piece added there,” Justin Janicke said. “[Carpenter’s] got a lot of grit, he makes good plays on the wall, and I think we’re doing a good job of finding each other and communicating well. That’s one of our big things – just talking to each other, working through plays in practice and reading off each other.”

Seven minutes later, Notre Dame’s fourth line delivered. Senior winger Brady Bjork, playing on just his third game of the season, forced a neutral zone turnover, setting up freshman center Jayden Davis to skate into the offensive zone. Davis veered left before wiring a shot off the right post and in for his first goal since Oct. 8.

“I’m happy for Jayden [Davis] getting the opportunity and then taking advantage of it. That’s the most important thing,” Jackson said. “He’s a smart player, and he’s got a little grit to him. Hopefully, he can be a guy who contributes down the road.”

The play also handed Bjork his first collegiate point.

Minnesota, however, showed no concern over the surprise goal. The Gophers took all of 18 seconds before retying the game on Jaxon Nelson’s 2-on-1 snipe from the left side.

The visitors would control the remainder of regulation, outshooting Notre Dame 14-7 in the third period. But the Irish hung in there, forcing a 3-on-3 overtime for the second consecutive Senior Night. 

As expected, the extra period featured end-to-end action, with both teams generating odd-man rushes within the opening minute. But as the 78th second elapsed, a 1-on-1 situation won the game for Minnesota. Immediately after Close robbed Bavaro in tight, NHL first-rounder Jimmy Snuggerud entered the offensive zone alone against Nelson, a second-rounder. The St. Louis Blues selection won the matchup, cutting inside and shooting around Nelson’s to beat Bischel under his right arm.

Still, with the help of Penn State’s 4-2 victory over Michigan, Notre Dame walked away from Saturday’s game in good shape. The Irish lead the Wolverines for home ice by 3 points and will travel to Ann Arbor next weekend. After that, Notre Dame will go on bye while Michigan travels to Minnesota for a difficult series.

Isolating the Notre Dame-Michigan series, the Irish can clinch home ice by taking 5 of the available 6 points. That means winning twice in regulation or winning one regulation game plus winning an overtime or shootout.

“If we could continue to play like we did [Friday night and parts of the game [Saturday], that’s the most important thing right now – just that we take it one day at a time,” Jackson said. “[We’ve] got a tough road trip next weekend against a really talented Michigan team. We’ve had some success in that building, but it’s a different year [and] different team, so hopefully we can continue that kind of success.”

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