Who: No. 13 Notre Dame (10-4-7) vs. Merrimack (7-9-5)
When: 7:40 p.m. tonight; 7:10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Compton Family Ice Arena; South Bend, Ind. (5,022)
Radio: 99.9 FM (WHFB)
TV: NBC Sports Network (both nights)
Notre Dame looks like a contender.
That’s how much an eight-game unbeaten streak – built on five wins, including a road upset of No. 4 Boston College – can change perceptions. And it all starts with the Irish getting the best goalie play head coach Jeff Jackson has seen all season.
Cal Petersen is allowing just 1.63 goals per game during that eight-game run, which included a couple road ties at No. 14 Denver. His save percentage has climbed to .926, a top 20 mark in the nation.
“The big thing for him is always consistency from period to period or from game to game,” Jackson said. “He’s probably had that level of consistency over the last month, six weeks. It’s having that even keel. That’s what makes him special is he’s got that ability to stay calm under pressure.”
Petersen is turning in some of his best efforts while facing more shots.
Denver threw 95 shots on Petersen in two games but mustered just three goals. Western Michigan put only 18 on goal last Friday night in Notre Dame’s 7-1 win, but then followed the next night with 39 in a 3-3 tie. Petersen has continued to withstand those onslaughts.
“The rhythm thing is obviously coming as the season progresses,” Petersen said. “But I think a lot of it is working with the goalie coach. It’s not specifically working on rebound control but as I get more confident in that and settle more into the season I’m able to concentrate on the little things more and am able to be a little bit stronger with where I put my rebounds.”
Merrimack (7-9-5) comes to South Bend this weekend for a Hockey East series averaging 29.6 shots per game, so it will probably be another busy couple games for the Notre Dame goaltender.
The Irish sit third in the conference standings with 14 points through nine games. Lowell is in first with 17 points in 12 games and Boston College is second with 16 in 10 games.
Petersen standing up to whatever Merrimack musters will be crucial for keeping momentum and collecting valuable league points before a road series next week.
“It’s nice being home,” Petersen said. “One of the things we’ve probably been working on is having a little bit more edge at home. That’s something coach has definitely harped on. Going on the road it’s easy to be gritty because you’re going into an opposing building. But I think at home it’s easy to fall back into complacency with the comfortability we have around here. This season we’ve had success around here, which is good. I think we’re looking to continue that.”
Lucia moves wings
Notre Dame is experimenting with a major change to its forward lines.
Mario Lucia, a natural left winger, has spent the last two games on the right for the first time in his career. Connor Hurley centered the line with Thomas DiPauli on the left wing. Lucia scored in the 7-1 win over Western Michigan, just his fourth goal this season.
Jackson plans to stick with Lucia at right wing for now in an effort to jumpstart one of his top goal scorers.
“I usually like to give it a couple weeks just to see if we can get it going,” Jackson said. “The biggest thing is the kid scored 20 goals over the last couple years and he just got his fourth last weekend. Maybe that’ll get him off the snide a little bit. But Tommy DiPauli is playing some of his best hockey since he’s been here and Connor Hurley has elevated a lot here in the last couple months.”
Lucia scored 21 goals and added 11 assists last season, his junior year, while playing all 42 games. He then chose to return for his senior season rather than sign a professional contract with the Minnesota Wild, which own his draft rights.
Up to this point, Lucia has four goals and eight assists in 21 games.
“I think he started off slow,” Jackson said. “I think his intensity has been improved but it’s still probably, just from a consistency standpoint, he has to have that extra oomph in his game. Because he’s had success in the past he gets isolated. Teams still put their best players up against him. If he wants to play in the National Hockey League someday, he’s gonna have to learn how to handle that.
“Sometimes you handle it by dishing the puck and sometimes you just have to growl a little bit and be strong over the puck and make a play.”
Wegwerth available for Merrimack
Freshman winger Joe Wegwerth can return against Merrimack after missing the last two games with a hand injury suffered while blocking a shot.
But whether Wegwerth jumps right back into the lineup remains to be seen. Jackson likes what he’s seen from a line centered by Jack Jenkins with Dawson Cook at left wing and Ostlie on the right while Wegwerth recovers.
Cook has also played center this season.
“Those four guys right now to me are a little interchangeable to some degree,” Jackson said. “They’ve been a positive factor for us. Sometimes they’ve scored a few key goals for us and they’ve also done a good job cycling the puck and giving us some offensive zone time. They’ve improved defensively in their own end.”
Cook (three goals, one assist) and Wegwerth (one goal, three assists) have four points each this season. Jenkins and Ostlie each have one goal and one assist.