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Notre Dame Hockey: Minnesota Series Preview

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The Fighting Irish return home for a series with the Gophers

Twitter @NDHockey

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish hockey team is returning to play this weekend after a bye a week ago. They’re most recent game was a mid-week make-up game against the Boston College Eagles which saw the Irish walk away with the win by a score of 8-2. Notre Dame also returns home after two straight series on the road, welcoming the Minnesota Gophers to South Bend.

Where, When, How to Watch:

  • Where: Compton Family Ice Arena, Notre Dame, IN
  • When: Friday, January 28, 7:30pm ET (Game 1); Saturday, January 29, 6pm ET (Game 2)
  • How to Watch: Streaming on Peacock and internationally on Fighting Irish TV (Games 1 & 2)

These previews are probably starting to sound like a broken record every week, but I promise I’m not copy and pasting, Notre Dame has simply been incredibly consistent all year. Unfortunately they’ve been somewhat consistent in splitting series and that’s prevented them from moving up the conference standings, but they haven’t lost ground either and remain fourth in the Big Ten and ranked #11/12 in the country, so they continue to play at a high level. They’ve also proven that they’re capable of beating any team on a given night and that may very well be important come tournament time.

Notre Dame is coming off a huge win against Boston College in a make-up game that was originally scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend. The Irish offense managed to score eight goals in that game, including a hat trick from sophomore Ryder Rolston. It was the first hat trick of Rolston’s career and earned him Third Star of the Week honors in the Big Ten. The Irish also scored three power pay goals in the game which could be an important kickstart for one of the only areas the team has shown any signs of struggle this season.

The bye weekend following the Boston College game did see Notre Dame fall behind in the conference standings though. They remain in fourth place, three points behind Minnesota, but the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes widened the gap at the top and now both sit nine points ahead of Notre Dame. The good news is the Irish have two games in hand on everybody except Minnesota, so their bye weeks are still coming.

Minnesota enters the weekend ranked #10 in the country and third in the Big Ten, just three points ahead of Notre Dame. The two teams met earlier in the season at Minnesota and the Gophers swept the Irish in what now proves to be an important two games. The big story in Minnesota recently though is the departure of goaltender Jack LaFontaine, who left the team two weeks ago to sign an entry level contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. LaFontaine is the reigning Mike Richter Award winner as the top goaltender in college hockey, and while he wasn’t playing up to that level this season, losing your starter mid-season is never an easy thing to overcome.

With the typical small sample size caveat, the Gophers are 2-2 in four games without LaFontaine. All four games have been started by junior goaltender Justen Close, who has allowed 1, 3, 1, and 4 goals in those games. He hasn’t been tested significantly though facing under twenty shots in three of those four games and facing only 27 in the fourth. He has a .897 SV% on the year in six games (four starts) so testing him with a high volume of shots is important. He doesn’t have much experience, with only four games played in his first two years combined, so facing a hostile crowd on the road could prove to be an issue. Minnesota does generally control the shot share in their games, with a CF% of 54.3 on the season, but that isn’t an overwhelming number and Notre Dame controls the shot share as well with their own CF% at 53.3.

Prediction

The key to the series for Notre Dame is simple, they have to test Minnesota’s goaltending with a lot of shots. They can definitely do that and I have to assume that an unproven goaltender with limited experience should provide the scoring opportunities that can allow Notre Dame to take both games. A sweep would be a huge boon to Notre Dame’s ranking and would see them jump ahead of Minnesota in the Big Ten. Now they just have to take advantage.