Who: No. 13 Notre Dame (12-4-7) at New Hampshire (8-10-4)
When: 7:05 p.m. tonight; 5:05 p.m. Saturday
Where: Whittemore Center; Durham, N.H. (6,501)
Radio: 99.9 FM (WHFB)
TV: Fox College Atlantic (Saturday)
Puck possession is something the Notre Dame hockey team expects to travel.
Riding a 10-game unbeaten streak, the Irish head to New Hampshire this weekend for a two-game Hockey East series. They’re 7-0-3 during that stretch with just one of those wins and all three ties coming on the road.
But Notre Dame is starting to fine tune something it believes can show up on the road just as well: Keeping the puck. Last Saturday, in a 5-1 win over Merrimack, the Irish won 33 face offs against just 17 losses. Having the puck so much led to 45 shots while Merrimack mustered only 17, including just four in each of the first two periods.
Notre Dame also forced seven power play opportunities, scoring once. Merrimack received the man advantage twice and didn’t score.
“We’re a puck possession team,” winger Thomas DiPauli said. “We like to have the puck on our stick. Obviously, chasing the puck around is never fun and guys get frustrated too. It all starts off the draws. If you bear down, you know your responsibility and your role, you’ll usually get the puck.”
Sophomore Jake Evans has morphed into a face off specialist.
After playing on the wing last year, head coach Jeff Jackson moved Evans to center. Evans has responded by winning a team best 57 percent of his draws. Jackson often uses Evans for critical face offs in the third period and the defensive zone.
“It helps that coach Jackson usually yells at you to win the draw,” Evans said. “That adds a little bit of fuel. But I think you just know. Coach puts you out there to win draws. Whoever is hot is playing, so that helps a lot. Getting possession is a really big thing. That’ll motivate you a lot.”
Dawson Cook (54 percent) Steven Fogarty (53 percent) and Connor Hurley (51 percent) are also winning more than half their attempts among the top four centers. Even wingers like DiPauli (55 percent) and Jack Jenkins (60 percent) are winning their fair share on fewer opportunities.
Jackson reviewed how the program approached face offs in the offseason and asked assistant Andy Slaggert to take a more active role in preparation. That includes breaking down film of opposing centers in a special meeting during the week and extra practice time.
So far, the results have been positive.
“That was one of the things I felt we needed to put more emphasis on was face offs this year,” head coach Jeff Jackson said. “Just based on last year. I thought face offs were a little bit of a problem for us at times. Moving Jake to center, I thought he might help us in that area. Dawson Cook has made an improvement in that area and we’ve got a couple guys in waiting that I think are gonna be pretty good at face offs. (Dylan) Malmquist has shown he might be able to win face offs and Jack Jenkins.”
Slaggert has also helped implement some new wrinkles in terms of face off plays.
Four times already this year the Irish have scored direct from winning a draw, including two goals from Malmquist. Better understanding tendencies and more attention to detail has helped Jackson put certain players in an advantageous situation.
“It’s almost like goal scoring,” Jackson said. “Some of it is innate. Some of it is skill but some of it is competitiveness too. You have to have that little extra intensity level. Again, a lot of it depends on the opponent you’re facing too. Some guys are better on their backhand. Some guys are better on their forehand. I know what our guys’ strengths are for the most part so I use them differently sometimes.”
Olympic-sized test at UNH
Should Notre Dame keep its unbeaten streak alive, it’ll do so by grabbing its first ever wins at New Hampshire.
The Irish are 0-3-0 all time at the Whittemore Center, which presents its own challenges as one of the few Olympic-sized rinks in college hockey. Notre Dame practiced all week on the Olympic sheet at the Compton Family Ice Arena in preparation.
Olympic sheets are generally wider than their more standard NHL-sized counterparts. Switching to an environment with so much extra room is cause for discipline.
“It impacts the game probably more on special teams than any other area just because of the additional space,” Jackson said. “But you can also get mesmerized by the additional 10 feet outside the dots. If you play outside the dots offensively you’re gonna have a hard time scoring. Same thing applies, if you get stretched outside the dots a lot you can be picked apart a bit. You have to play the game the same. You just have to be conscious of the additional width.”
Jackson has emphasized getting pucks inside the dots in the offensive zone, otherwise goals might be hard to come by. Notre Dame is averaging four goals per game in the last 10 games, including at least five goals scored in three of the last four.
“Coach was emphasizing there’s kind of a box around the net that we gotta get to,” Evans said. “That’s the area we’ve really gotta win. Teams get mesmerized outside the dots and you’re not really gonna score many goals from out there. We’ve gotta focus on getting to the net and getting shots there.”
Irish land 4 in midterm rankings
NHL Central Scouting released its midterm rankings this week the next NHL Draft and four prospects with Notre Dame connections made the list of North American skaters.
Defenseman Andrew Peeke led the group at No. 50 overall. Peek is currently playing for the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL. Forwards Cameron Morrison (59), Michael Graham (85) and Malmquist (195) made the list as well.
Morrison is playing with Youngtown in the USHL this season while Graham finishes out his high school career at Eden Prairie in Minnesota. Both, along with Peeke, have already signed letters-of-intent.