Who: No. 8 Notre Dame (16-5-7) vs. Maine (7-17-6)
When: 6:40 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)
Jordan Gross never needed much encouragement to join in the offense.
Some defensemen are content to stay home, setting risk aside to protect the blue line. Not so much with Gross. He’s always been into the attack, including his freshman season at Notre Dame when he scored seven goals and added 21 assists in 42 games.
Gross honed his skills thanks to the coaching staff and an apprenticeship with senior defenseman Robbie Russo, who tallied 15 goals and 26 assists last winter during his senior season.
“It’s just how I’ve always played,” Gross said. “It helped last year (that) I came in and played with Robbie, who helped me a lot. He helped me mature a lot offensively and defensively. I think I’m trying to take this leadership role with Bob (Nardella) and help him out.”
Now a sophomore, Gross has taken another step. He has eight goals and 18 assists through 28 games. He’s third nationally in points per game for defensemen at .93, trailing only St. Cloud State’s Ethan Prow (1.12) and Providence’s Jake Walman (1.08).
What’s more, his defensive partner isn’t far behind. The freshman Nardella has four goals and 17 assists and is sixth in the country in points per game for defensemen at .81.
Combined, Gross and Nardella (47 points) are tied for the second highest scoring defensive pair in the country. Prow and Niklas Nevalainen (St. Cloud State) are first with 49 points while Walman and John Gilmour (Providence) also have 47.
Head coach Jeff Jackson paired Gross and Nardella together just last month. Notre Dame swept Merrimack that weekend and is 6-1-0 since the duo joined forces.
“I think it started because we put them together on the power play,” Jackson said. “Then we started to see their creativity together. There’s points in time where we’re not gonna be able to play them together based on matchups. Not because of their ability but because of their size. If there’s a big team that we play with three lines or four lines and the top three lines are all big, we have to make an evaluation of whether they’re together or not.
“But we’ve also found out they’re so evasive that it doesn’t matter. They don’t get stuck in their own zone very much because they can make a play to get out of their zone.”
Gross credits chemistry away from the rink for helping form the productive pairing.
“I think me and Bobby have a really good relationship off the ice,” Gross said. “He’s a pretty similar player to me and we complement each other very well. He sees the ice extremely well. He’ll always be passing the puck to me. He’s really good at finding open guys.”
Irish host struggling Maine
Notre Dame surged into a tie atop Hockey East and moved to No. 8 nationally with its road sweep of Vermont last weekend.
Over the last 15 games the Irish are 11-1-3 with their lone loss being to No. 3 Boston College at home. They return to the Compton Family Ice Arena the next two nights for a league series with Maine, which is 3-8-2 since returning from holiday break.
But with No. 5 Providence College and No. 7 Boston University coming the next two weeks to end the regular season, snagging points at home is critical.
“We can’t take Maine lightly,” said winger Sam Herr. “Just because they’re not in the top of the standings like Providence and Boston are doesn’t give us any right to take them any differently than we would take those two teams. Guys know that, which is a good thing. We’re just trying to keep the same pace in practice like we had last week. I think we’ve done that.”
Maine has struggled to score in league play, averaging just 1.81 goals per game. That mark ranks 11th out of 12 teams. Notre Dame goalie Cal Petersen has made two appearances against the Black Bears (one start) while allowing 0.77 goals per game with a .977 save percentage.
Petersen still seeking first shutout
Maybe a couple starts against Maine could give Petersen his first shutout of the year.
Petersen has started all 28 games this season and has allowed two goals or less in 17 of them. Notre Dame is 13-0-4 in those outings. But Petersen has yet to notch a clean sheet. He had four shutouts last season.
“He’s also the type of guy that could care less about a shutout,” Herr said. “He’s a humble player. He’s team first. He’s just gonna do whatever it takes for us to win – he’s obviously going to try for a shutout – but whether that’s a shutout or it’s (giving up) four goals and we’re scoring five. He doesn’t care how the win happens. He just cares that our team’s winning. He’s given us a chance to win every single game we’ve played.”
Petersen continues to better his statistics, now with a 2.13 goals-against average and .929 save percentage on the season. During the last 15 games he’s allowed 1.67 goals per game to go with a lofty .946 save percentage.
Oglevie out for Maine series
Winger Andrew Oglevie won’t be available for at least the Maine series after suffering an injury in the first game against Vermont last week.
“He won’t be in this weekend,” Jackson said. “Probably a couple weeks. We’ll wait and see.”
Oglevie has five goals and four assists this season with a plus-11 rating.