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Notre Dame Hockey: Penn State-Big Ten Semifinal Preview

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Notre Dame will try to cool off the red hot Nittany Lions.

2017 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championships - Semifinals Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After having a bye week this past weekend, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (23-9-2, 17-6-1-1) will host one of the two single-elimination Big Ten Tournament semifinal games this weekend when they take on the Penn State Nittany Lions (18-13-5, 9-10-5-2) at the Compton Family Ice Arena on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. EST. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

The winner of Saturday’s game will play the winner of the other semifinal game, Michigan-Ohio State, next Saturday in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Michigan-Ohio State game will take place on Saturday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio and can be seen at 7:30 p.m. EST on the Big Ten Network.

After looking unstoppable for most of the season, Notre Dame went through a significant slump during the last three weeks of the regular season. After clinching the Big Ten regular season title on Feb. 9, Notre Dame has since gone 1-4-0-0. The last game they played was a frustrating 4-3 loss to Michigan State on Feb. 24 in a game that saw the Irish squander three separate one-goal leads. If Notre Dame wants to secure a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, they will have to awaken from their February slumber and win a Big Ten Championship Game that could possibly take place on their home ice. If Notre Dame beats Penn State, they will host the conference championship game next Saturday at the Compton Family Ice Arena. That is, again, IF they beat Penn State on Saturday.

Where: Compton Family Ice Arena, Notre Dame, IN

When: Saturday, March 10, 5:30 p.m. EST

Watch: ESPNU or on the WATCHESPN app.

Tale of the Tape

Penn State is currently on a five-game winning streak, with the last four victories coming against Minnesota. Before the last weekend of the regular season, Penn State found themselves on the outside of the NCAA Tournament picture looking in, and needed a successful series against Minnesota in order to get back in. That’s exactly what they got, sweeping the Golden Gophers by 5-1 and 5-2 scores to finish fourth in the final Big Ten regular season standings, which allowed them to host a best-of-three conference tournament series last weekend. The Nittany Lions’ opponent just happened to be the Gophers again, and for a second straight weekend, Penn State swept Minnesota, 5-3 and 6-5, to advance to the Big Ten semifinals against Notre Dame. Penn State freshman Evan Barratt scored two goals during Penn State’s Game 2 victory, including the game-winner. Barratt also scored an empty net goal during Game 1. Penn State goaltender Peyton Jones made 32 and 35 saves, respectively, during the Nittany Lions’ two-game sweep.

The two sweeps have all but assured Penn State of an NCAA Tournament berth. According to the Pairwise Probability Matrix that can be found on colleghockeynews.com, Penn State has a 99.7% chance of making the Tournament, and has a 22% and 26% chance of ending up as either the No. 10 or the 11 overall seed, respectively. That means they would be a 3-seed in the Allentown, Pa. regional, which they will serve as the host of.

According to the Pairwise Probability Matrix, Notre Dame is currently tied for the No. 2 overall ranking with Cornell, while Penn State is currently ranked No. 11. The Matrix projects Notre Dame to be either the No. 2 or 3 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, which means they would serve as the 1-seed in whatever NCAA Regional they end up being selected to. A win over Penn State this weekend will help increase the chances of that happening.

On Thursday, Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris was named one of the 10 semifinalists for the 2018 Mike Richter Award, given annually to college hockey’s best goaltender.

The Last Time

The last time these two teams met was back on Feb. 2-3, when Notre Dame traveled to Hockey Valley for a two game series with Penn State. The Irish came back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Nittany Lions 5-3 in Game 1 before giving up a 2-0 lead to tie Penn State 2-2 in Game 2. Notre Dame won the shootout in Game 2 to earn the extra point. Senior forward Bo Brauer scored two goals in Game 1, including the game-tying and winning goals. Goaltender Cale Morris made 55 saves in Game 2, including three during the shootout and a penalty shot during overtime.

Prediction

If Notre Dame wants to host the Big Ten Championship Game at their home barn on Saint Patrick’s Day, they’re going to have to cool off a hot Penn State team by doing what was so effective for them earlier this season, great team-defense and stellar goaltending from Cale Morris.

A trend I’ve noticed from Notre Dame this season has been slow starts at the beginning of games, weathering the storm behind the efforts of Morris, and then regaining their footing midway through the opening period. The Irish can’t continue to let that happen in these upcoming playoff games, whether it’s the Big Ten or NCAA Tournament, because if they do they’re eventually going to get burned. The competition is just going to get tougher from here on out. If Notre Dame comes out swinging and dictates play early on, they will be in great shape.

The Notre Dame faithful also have to step up too. Since this weekend is the beginning of Notre Dame’s spring break, the Compton might be a little emptier than usual. Hopefully a good number of local fans will make the trek to The House that Jeff Jackson Built to watch a rare single-elimination home playoff game. I believe they will. When Notre Dame hosted Providence for a Hockey East quarterfinal series last year, the Compton had great crowds for both games despite it taking place during spring break. A loud and rowdy crowd could help give the Irish that little extra jump and motivation on Saturday.

I predict Notre Dame will get the job done, 3-2.