Who: No. 7 Notre Dame (18-5-7) at No. 5 Providence (21-5-4)
When: 7:05 p.m. tonight; 7:05 p.m. Saturday
Where: Schneider Arena; Providence, R.I. (3,033)
Radio: 99.9 FM (WHFB)
TV: CoxSports on OSN (local)
Few outside the Notre Dame hockey program would have noticed Luke Ripley struggling with his game earlier in the season.
Such is the life of a stay-at-home defenseman. Ripley played 42 games as a freshman last season, scoring just two goals and totaling eight points. He attempted only 32 shots and finished with a plus-4 rating while finishing second on the team with 71 blocked shots.
Not much has changed as a sophomore — Ripley has played all 30 games with no goals, five assists, 48 blocked shots and a plus-11 rating. All good, right? Not so much in the fall.
“Luke started off really slow,” said head coach Jeff Jackson. “He had a really tough first half, the first couple months. He’s a guy that thrives on confidence. He’s also a guy that goes backwards if he loses confidence.”
Make no mistake, Ripley struggled in that department during October and November.
That didn’t show in the box score, especially when part of a productive defensive pairing with senior Andy Ryan. But Ripley wasn’t always making strong decisions with the puck.
Since the holiday break, however, Ripley has been in form. Jackson said he’s playing “his best hockey of the season” as No. 7 Notre Dame travels to No. 5 Providence for a crucial two-game Hockey East series this weekend. Jackson talked about things like gap control and one-on-one battles in the defensive zone.
Those don’t show in the box score, but they’re part of Ripley’s identity.
“I was just trying to get back to my game and get back to being a shutdown defenseman,” Ripley said. “Simplifying a little bit. Really just simplifying my game and moving the puck and being hard to play against.”
Jackson and the coaching staff actually discussed giving Ripley a few games off during the first half the season. That never happened and Ripley is grateful, seeing a long-term benefit.
Playing through a slump while working in practice helped Ripley eventually improve.
“That was big,” he said. “We were meeting and we were just working on little things, not trying to get too down on things. Just trying to pick things to work on and then get better every day. When you’re doing that your confidence is gonna come with it.”
Ripley admitted he's not one to seek the spotlight. Turns out when things are going well, it’s not likely to come anyway with how his game is built. But there are some things to watch when the Kitimat, B.C., native hits the ice for his next shift.
“For me a lot of it is simplicity,” he said. “Moving the puck, just limiting any mistakes or the opportunity for mistakes to come up. Sometimes there’s opportunities where you think you might be able to make a play but it’s having the patience to just realize maybe that’s not the play you should be making and make simple things. Then defensively, just having a good stick and good feet, working efficiently and being hard to play against.”
Providence offers tough road test
Notre Dame (18-5-7, 14-2-2 Hockey East) heads to Providence atop the Hockey East standings with 30 points, one point clear of Boston College.
Providence is in third with 27 points while pursuing not only a top four finish in the league standings, which would result in a bye through the first round of the playoffs, but potentially a regular season title. Massachusetts-Lowell (26 points) and Boston University (23 points) are right behind them in fourth and fifth, respectively.
Notre Dame will clinch a first round bye in the Hockey East playoffs with just one point this weekend.
The Friars have won four straight games and have one of the best goalies in the league in Nick Ellis, who’s allowing 2.04 goals per game to go with a .929 save percentage. Ellis is in his first season as the full-time starter after Jon Gillies departed for the professional ranks.
“I think they’re a very well-balanced team,” Jackson said. “I think the biggest thing that people probably wondered about going into the year was how they were gonna replace Gillies. They’ve certainly done that with Ellis. He’s been a stalwart back there for them. They’ve got a great defense. They’ve got a really good defense. And they’ve got a lot of seniors. It’s a senior-laden team.”
Providence boasts one of the most prolific defensive pairings in the country with Jake Walman and John Gilmour. Walman has 13 goals and 15 assists in 26 games. He’s the second highest scoring defenseman in the country in points per game.
Needless to say, Irish forwards will have to be a little extra aware of that pairing.
“You always have to know who’s on the ice for sure,” said center Jake Evans. “With them, it’s mainly wingers that are covering them but I’m for sure gonna have a look around when they’re on the ice and make sure they’re not in the slot and open for a shot. If I can get in their lanes to not let them shoot, it’ll be pretty big for us.”
Irish revel in fast starts
One way to secure road points this weekend: Keep getting off to strong starts.
Notre Dame has outscored opponents 32-12 in the first period this season, its largest margin of any period. All told, the Irish have scored first in 24 of their 30 games. Their record is 17-2-5 when scoring the first goal.
“A lot of it has had to do with the leadership and putting an emphasis on it at the beginning of the year,” Jackson said. “This senior class has been here for four years. They recognize some of the things that have not gone well in the past, like slow starts. Home record, being better at home. Coming out strong, especially in the first period at home. I think they put a lot of emphasis on it in the locker room. They made it one of their goals this year to get off to good starts, to win first periods.”
Only one other team in the country has scored as many first goals — Providence, also with 24.