Who: Notre Dame (6-4-4) vs. Massachusetts (6-5-4)
When: 7:35 p.m. tonight; 6:10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Compton Family Ice Arena; South Bend, Ind. (5,022)
Radio: 99.9 FM (WHFB)
TV: CSN Chicago Plus (Friday); NBC Sports Network (Saturday)
Anders Bjork has been playing the entire season with the World Junior Championship on his mind.
Camp opens for the U.S. national junior team in a couple weeks. Over the course of four days in Boston, coaches and USC Hockey officials will whittle the roster down to the final group that will compete in this year’s edition of the tournament in Helsinki, Finland.
Bjork, a winger for Notre Dame, hopes not only to land a camp invite but also to make the final roster when Team USA opens play Dec. 26 against Canada.
“It’s been on my mind a little bit,” Bjork said. “I try to keep it off my mind and just focus on winning games and contributing to our team. I think about it every once in awhile. But just talking to other people, they tell me to focus on winning games and things like that, which I’ve been trying to do. Be the best for our team and everything else will work.”
Head coach Jeff Jackson and senior winger Thomas DiPauli, one of his closest friends on the team, know the prospect of representing his country abroad has been on Bjork’s mind for the better part of the season.
Bjork has called his start to the season “decent” with three goals, nine assists and a team high plus-10 rating in 14 games. He’d hoped to do more while impressing USA Hockey before camp.
“He’s been playing well but at times you can tell he’s getting a little bit hyper and overexcited and is trying to do too much to show the scouts that he should be on the team,” DiPauli said. “But I think when it comes down to him, what he has to do is keep it simple. He’s gonna be a third or fourth line guy on that world junior team if he makes it.
“He’s not gonna be a top six guy, so he’s gotta focus on penalty killing and good defensive positioning, doing the little things. Maybe throwing a hit around and playing with speed. I think that way if he just relaxes and keeps playing hard, he’ll make the team I think.”
DiPauli knows from experience.
He made the team in a similar role for the 2014 World Junior Championship. Top forwards on that team included Jack Eichel, now with the Buffalo Sabres, and former Irish center Vince Hinostroza, who’s now in the Blackhawks system.
DiPauli killed penalties, played defense and used his speed en route to a plus-4 rating in five games. He also chipped in a couple assists.
Worrying less about goal scoring and more about other things can give Bjork the result (and goals) he wants. Jackson has been emphasizing that point along the way.
“It happens to all kids,” Jackson said. “They’re trying to be very productive so they get noticed by the national junior staff and it backfires for them. But the thing is, they’re looking at Anders to be more of a guy that’s gonna be a good third line guy that can kill penalties. Maybe even a fourth line guy that’s got speed, is tenacious, because he can be. They’re looking at him as a potential penalty killer, a player that supports and augments other guys.
“They’re loaded through their first two lines with guys that are pure offensive players. Anders has potential to be a great offensive player but he also has the ability to defend and kill penalties because of his skating.”
It’s been message received for Bjork, who believes accentuating what he does best will get Notre Dame on a roll heading into the holiday break and give him the best chance to represent the Irish in Finland.
“I definitely do that,” Bjork said. “A couple things I focus on are like being good on the walls, details of the game like that. Back checking hard, stopping on pucks. Things like that that are little details that make your game better and lead to offense and ultimately lead to more points.”
UMass returns for Hockey East series
Notre Dame (6-4-4, 3-1-2 Hockey East) hosts its final home series before the holiday break this weekend as Massachusetts returns to the Compton Family Ice Arena for the first time since last season’s league playoff series, which included the longest game in college hockey history.
UMass took a 4-3 win in that five-overtime affair, but the Irish won a best-of-three series. Notre Dame goaltender Cal Petersen made an NCAA record 87 saves in the five overtime game.
“It was funny because in overtime there’s not television time outs,” Jackson said. “It actually felt fast to me. You would’ve thought it felt long and drawn out. But really, the periods flew by in overtime. Maybe that’s because we were playing without TV timeouts after having had them. It wasn’t like there was a lot of things going on. There probably should’ve been some penalties called because it never would’ve gone six periods if they had called the game the same way.
“And yet I still respect officials for not wanting to be the difference in a playoff game. It’s a Catch 22. They should call the game the same way, in reality. It was interesting to be a part of. I’ve never been a part of anything like that in a long career. It was interesting because it actually flew by.”
Playing at home this weekend represents a big opportunity for Notre Dame to accumulate points.
UMass-Lowell currently sits atop the Hockey East standings with 15 points in nine games played. Boston College is second with 10 points in five games while four teams — Notre Dame, Boston University, Merrimack and UMass have eight points.
Notre Dame has played the fewest league games in that eight-point group at just six. Getting the Minutemen at home this weekend represents a chance to create separation and bolster a 3-2-3 home record this season.
“That's one of the things we’ve been focusing on as a team is to improve our record at home,” Bjork said. “We wanna try to get some more wins and get the atmosphere better around here. That would be helpful to get a couple wins this weekend, for sure.”
Discipline a key topic
Jackson spent part of this week discussing penalties with his team.
Last week against Harvard the Irish committed nine penalties and surrendered three power-play goals en route to 4-1 loss. Even more, they’ve committed four major penalties this season, two by defenseman Andy Ryan.
“There’s gonna be penalties in games regardless,” Jackson said. “You’re gonna take penalties for physical errors. You’re gonna take penalties that are maybe marginal calls. You’re gonna take penalties in different ways. But the ones you’ve got to eliminate are the ones you have control over. As a coach, hindsight is 20-20. We’ve never had an issue with major penalties but now we’ve had four. We have to eliminate them.
“I have to call out guys to tell them the next time they’re going to miss a game. It’s gotten to that point. It’s not just the majors though. It’s some of the other penalties.”
Notre Dame’s penalty kill currently sits 49th nationally (out of 60 teams) at a 78 percent success rate.