Who: No. 9 Notre Dame (4-3-1) vs. Northeastern (3-3-3)
When: 7:05 p.m. Saturday; 3:05 p.m. Sunday
Where: Matthews Arena; Boston, Mass. (4,757)
Radio: 94.3 FM (WZOC)
Anders Bjork understands that Notre Dame needs to score to win.
While that’s obvious, it’s also something Bjork believes is worth mentioning after Notre Dame graduated the 36 goals scored by Mario Lucia, Sam Herr and Thomas DiPauli last year. Bjork scored a dozen on his own last season, but he knew that number needed to jump in a big way as a junior.
“Coaches wanted me to focus on that and see if I can learn new ways and be better around the net,” Bjork said. “I’ve been working on that and think I can improve on that a lot more as well. I’m gonna try to continue that.”
Whatever work Bjork put in during the offseason is paying fast dividends. He’s second nationally in points per game with seven goals and nine assists in eight games for Notre Dame heading into this weekend’s road series against Northeastern.
Bjork trails only Union forward Mike Vecchione (2.18) in points per game. Vecchione has 14 goals and 10 assists in 11 games.
“I didn’t really think about it,” Bjork said. “But every player hopes to get off to a hot start. I’m happy I sort of have here. The biggest thing is just to keep going and learning ways to score. For me it’s learning ways to score in the big games, big moments especially. When our team needs a goal I’ve gotta learn to step up and be that guy. Be extra gritty and stuff like that.”
Head coach Jeff Jackson has used Bjork as part of a speedy line centered by Connor Hurley with Dylan Malmquist on the other wing for most of the season. Hurley is second on the team to Bjork with eight assists. Malmquist has three goals and seven assists of his own.
Speed is something all players use to their advantage even as they continue to develop other ways to score.
Bjork, a fifth-round pick of the Boston Bruins in the 2014 NHL Draft, often takes defensemen out wide or charges directly to the net at top speed. Even while developing other ways to score, Jackson likes to see Bjork use his best asset.
“I actually get excited when I see him do things to use his speed more effectively like take defensemen wide or take it right to the net,” Jackson said. “He needs to use his speed a little bit more like on entries as far as when he is closed off against a tight gap he chips pucks and beats defensemen to pucks. You can use the boards for passes to yourself in a lot of instances if you use it effectively instead of trying to do too much and turning it over or force a play.”
Jackson spent practice last week — Notre Dame had a bye — helping Bjork and others be more efficient in using that speed. He’ll see if it pays off during the season’s first conference road series.
“We focused a lot on stopping and starting and not turning,” Bjork said. “Using our speed on rushes to have a middle guy drive in or taking the puck to the net, things like that. Using our speed smart is a thing. Knowing when to turn on the jets and when to stop on the puck and stuff like that.”
Handling the Huskies
Visiting Northeastern this weekend means Notre Dame (4-3-1) will be facing one of its most difficult opponents over the last few seasons.
They’ve faced each other 11 times since 2011-12 with the Irish going 2-8-1. Last season Notre Dame won and tied in a regular season series but the Huskies bounced back by capturing a sweep in the Hockey East playoff quarterfinals en route to winning the title.
“They’re a very hardworking team,” Jackson said. “They play extremely well without the puck. They get to the net real well. They’re difficult to play against. That’s a quality of a good team is they’re hard to play against. They do 100 different things on face offs, so they try to get you kinda whacked out trying to figure out how to cover all these different face off plays they run.
“They put a lot of pressure on you. That’s where you have to have poise. We haven’t handled that overly well the last three years.”
Northeastern (3-3-3) enters this season winless in Hockey East play so far and in its last three games after a tie and loss with Boston University last week.
Two key players, brothers John and Nolan Stevens, have been in and out of the lineup recently. John Stevens has played in just five games but is expected back this weekend. Nolan has played in six of nine games.
Making the best of a bye
Notre Dame heads to Northeastern well rested.
But not having games didn’t keep Jackson from putting his team through regular practices. Jackson scheduled four of them before giving players the weekend off.
“I think we learned a lesson last year,” Jackson said. “We had the bye week before we played Northeastern and I don’t think we worked hard enough to compete hard enough in practice. Last week we actually practiced every day except we gave them an additional day off … We went hard for four days.”
Now the Irish dive into a stretch that includes four games over the next week — a two-game series at Northeastern this weekend followed by hosting No. 5 Massachusetts-Lowell on Thursday and Friday next week because of the home football game against Virginia Tech.
“I think our bye week actually was well-timed, especially for how we’ve been playing,” Bjork said. “I think we’ve just been play alright, you know? We used this bye week to refocus on things and learn and improve on areas of weakness that have contributed to some losses. Now we’re reenergized and real excited for these next four games.”