Despite a difficult start to the season at the Ice Breaker Tournament, the Irish look to have righted the ship. After dropping its first two games to open the season, ND won five straight games against Lake Superior State, Niagara, and Vermont, and was 30 seconds away from a sixth ultimately tying Vermont 2-2 last Saturday. While the Irish has looked much better since the opening tournament, none of the teams ND has played thus far will test them like this weekend's opponent. Furthermore, this series is the first road trip for the currently 15/14 ranked Notre Dame. While facing the top ranked and defending national finalists Minnesota is tough enough, doing so in front of 10,000 fans at Mariucci Arena where the Gophers have a 15 game winning streak only makes things more difficult. Regardless of the result, the series should give fans a good indication of how much the team has progressed over the last month and how close they are to one of the top teams in the country.
The Opponent: Minnesota Gophers
Surprising approximately zero fans of college hockey, the Gophers look to be one of the top teams in the nation again this season. Last season, Minnesota lost to Union in the final game of the Frozen Four after beating North Dakota in one of the best finishes in tournament history in the semifinal. Defenseman Justin Holl scored the game winning goal short-handed with less than one second left in regulation against their former WCHA rival before the Gophers lost 7-4 in the championship game two days later. Based on their roster and results up to this point in the season, Minnesota looks more than capable of returning to the Frozen Four in April. Irish fans had a the chance to see them in person at Compton Family Ice Arena during the Ice Breaker that the Gophers won beating Minnesota-Duluth (4-3) and RPI (3-0). The rest of their schedule includes home wins against Bemidji State and St. Cloud State with their only loss coming on the road against St. Cloud State. Minnesota is led by senior captain Kyle Rau who leads the team with 9 points (3 G, 6 A) and is a draft pick of the Panthers. Another scoring threat is freshman Justin Kloos who led the Gophers with 16 goals last season. Kloos has started strong this year having already scored 5 goals to go with an assist. The Gophers also return their starting goaltender from last season. Hobey Baker Finalist and 2nd Team All-American Adam Wilcox has started all six games for Minnesota. And although his GAA and SV% have both been worse this season (.932 & 1.97 in 2013/14, .902 & 2.50 in 2014/15), it's more likely that sample size is to blame rather than a drop off in ability. On the injury front, the Gophers will be without two of their better players this weekend as Brady Skjei and Travis Boyd will miss the series. Skjei is one of Minnesota's top defensemen and penalty killers, while Boyd was fifth on the team in scoring last season and plays an important role on the power play. It's likely that both players will be replaced by talented, but inexperienced freshman, but the Gophers will have a full week of practice to get them ready to face ND. Skjei and Boyd's absence will also force Minnesota coach Don Lucia to shuffle his PP and PK lineups. Lastly, playing against Minnesota in recent years has meant facing a coach with ties to Notre Dame Hockey. Don Lucia graduated from Notre Dame in 1981 and is the father of Irish junior LW Mario Lucia. Additionally, the current Minnesota coach was rumored to have been in contention for the coaching job at his alma mater in 1995 when the Irish ultimately hired Dave Poulin. While Irish fans can't really complain about the program under coach Jeff Jackson, it's interesting to think about where the program could have gone with Lucia at the helm.
Scoring: Notre Dame will need a big performance from their Lucia if they hope to keep up with Minnesota this weekend. The junior LW has started the season on a tear and is currently second in the nation with 8 goals. After Lucia, five Irish skaters (DiPauli, Russo, Fogarty, Evans and Herr) have each scored 3 goals helping the team to a very good 3.8 goals/game. While Minnesota's defense is very good (all eight Minnesota defensemen have been drafted by NHL teams), ND has enough firepower to create chances and score goals against the Gophers.
Defense: Through eight games, Notre Dame is allowing 2.13 goals per game which puts them in the "good but not great" range nationally. Coming into the season without a defined starting goaltender, Jackson seems to have settled on freshman Cal Petersen who started the last five games while recording a fantastic .950 SV% for the season. Although he has looked better than Katunar, Petersen has yet to play a road game in his short college career. His lack of experience could lead Jackson to split the starts this weekend, but I would expect to see Petersen start both games barring injury or an especially bad Friday night performance. On the blue line, the young Irish defenseman will have their hands full with Rau and company, but much like ND's roster, Minnesota's lineup is very balanced and lacks a true superstar. All three pairings have the ability to skate with Minnesota's forwards, but they can't afford many mistakes.
Special Teams: Minnesota currently ranks fourth on the power play at over 30% so staying out of the box and a strong penalty kill will be main keys for the Irish. Thankfully, ND has done both of these things so far this season. The ND penalty kill has been good this season, holding opponents to just over 15% on the power play. In addition, ND has generally done well staying out of the box giving opponents less than 5 PPs per game which is in the top 15 nationally. The Irish power play, however, is a different story. Through eight games, ND has scored with the man advantage in just one game against Niagara when they scored their only three power play goals of the season. Although Jackson's teams have always struggled on the PP, the 8.8% conversion rate this season is inexcusable. While the current PP% is unsustainably low and the sample size is too small to draw any major conclusions, the Irish have struggled to create any shots at all on the power play. On 32 opportunities with the extra skater, ND is averaging just one shot per power play. The lack of shots suggests that the problems go much deeper than simply getting some bounces here and there, and it will take more than better puck luck to get the numbers to a respectable level. Thankfully, Minnesota has been below average on the penalty kill up to the point in the season and will be breaking in a new pairing on the kill.
How to Watch / Prediction:
Both games will be on national TV this weekend.
Game 1: Friday, November 7: 8:00 PM ET Big Ten Network
Game 2: Sunday, November 9: 5:00 PM ET ESPNU
While I think the ND team taking the ice tonight at Mariucci tonight is far better than the one that lost both games of the Ice Breaker tournament, it's hard to ignore the differences between Notre Dame and Minnesota's games against UMD and RPI. Additionally, while experience playing in a hostile environment will unquestionably help the team down the road in conference play, it's wouldn't be surprising to see the Irish struggle in their first game away from home. Although I think these two teams could be very evenly matched come April in a hypothetical NCAA tournament game, Minnesota looks to be a few steps ahead of ND right now. ND definitely has the talent to beat Minnesota, but it would require a complete performance from the Irish that we have yet to see against a good opponent. Avoiding a sweep would be, in my opinion, a good result for the Irish.
Friday: Minnesota 4 Notre Dame 2
Sunday: Minnesota 2 Notre Dame 2