By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
– In some ways, Michigan State would probably rather play Notre Dame this weekend at Notre Dame instead of Munn Arena
First, the Spartans had one of their best series at Notre Dame just over two months ago. They tied 1-1 and won 3-2 in overtime. The only negative was losing the shootout in the opener.
Second, the Irish, for whatever reasons, have a heck of a time winning at home this year and have done remarkably well on enemy ice
In a weird season complicated by COVID-19 issues, resulting in different scheduling and travel, postponements, cancellations and uncertainty, Notre Dame's path has been anything but typical.
Playing at home in the Compton Family Ice Arena
, the Irish have won just one Big Ten game and only three overall, including a pair of victories over Arizona State.
On the road? No problem. The Irish have won seven games and boast sweeps at Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State.
Here are the numbers:
Notre Dame is 3-10-1 overall and 1-8-1 at home in Big Ten play. It has been swept by Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan and tied and lost vs. Michigan State.
On the road, however, Notre Dame is 7-2-1 overall and in the conference.
The Irish's next road target is MSU.
The Spartans (7-13-2 overall, 5-12-1-2-1-0) Big Ten) and Irish (10-12-2, 8-10-2-1-2-2) meet at 6 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday at Munn Arena
, where MSU is 5-5-1 overall and 3-4-0 in the Big Ten. Both games will be streamed by Big Ten Network Plus.
MSU coach Danton Cole
has watched video of the Irish and he can't pinpoint why they've excelled on the road and struggled at home.
"I don't see any huge differences other than they've had some early scoring, got ahead on the road and were able to get in good defensive situations,'' Cole said. "Early in the season at Michigan, they were really good games and they played extremely well against a good team.''
Notre Dame scored the first goal in eight of its 10 road games.
"It's definitely a weird thing because they usually have good home ice
advantage,'' Cole said. "They've played really well on the road. To have that kind of split it an oddity. It just shows you that they can play a certain style of game that can make it hard on the home team.''
Like several teams in the Big Ten, the Irish have been plagued by inconsistency.
Notre Dame was 4-5-1 overall and 3-4-1 in the Big Ten at the Christmas break.
Since the start of January, the Irish are 6-7-1 overall and 5-6-1 in conference play.
During a stretch in mid-January, Notre Dame scored only one goal in three straight games. Then it scored three, six and eight in the next three contests. Next, the Irish were shutout at home by Minnesota, 3-0, 3-0.
Last weekend, they scored seven goals in a 4-2 loss and 5-5 tie and shootout win at Wisconsin.
"The big thing with Notre Dame is you better be ready at the drop of the puck,'' Cole said. "The immediacy has to be there. (MSU sports psychiatrist) Dr. (Lionel) Rosen talks about the three I's – immediacy, intensity and intelligence. You better have those when you're playing them.
"When we've had success, whether it was against them or anybody else, we've had all three of those things working for us.''
Notre Dame, under coach Jeff Jackson, is known for its stifling defensive system, but the Irish have also shown at times that they can be dangerous in the offensive zone.
Last weekend at Wisconsin, they rallied from a 3-1 deficit and tied the game in the third period, 3-3, then fell behind 4-3. But the Irish scored two goals within 36 seconds to go up 5-4, and were 27 seconds away from a victory when the Badgers tied it with a goal off the faceoff.
After a scoreless 3-on-3 overtime, Notre Dame won in the shootout.
"They're an extremely hard-working team,'' Cole said. "They're going to make you work to get out of your zone and to get into their zone and to stay in the (offensive) zone.''
THE MSU-ND RIVALRY:
The Spartans hold a 65-51 edge in the series, which started on Jan. 18, 1922, with a 3-1 Notre Dame win in East Lansing
MSU is undefeated in the last six games against the Irish at 3-0-3 with a win and tie in each of the last three series – two last season and one earlier this year. In each of those ties, the Irish won the shootout.
But the Spartans haven't had much success against Notre Dame in the last several seasons. In their first two years in the Big Ten – starting in 2017-18 – the Irish went 8-1-1 vs. MSU, including two playoff wins in 2018-19.
But that changed last season as Michigan State held the upper hand with a 2-0-2 record. In both ties, the Irish scored late to snatch a victory away from MSU and send the game into overtime.
Earlier this season at Notre Dame, the teams played to a 1-1 tie in the series opener on Dec. 19 before the Spartans pulled out a 4-3 overtime victory on Dec. 20.
In the second game, MSU rallied from a 3-2 deficit to tie the game with 22 seconds left on Tommy Apap's
goal, and then won it at 1:26 of overtime on defenseman Tommy Miller
highlight-reel goal. In 3-on-3 OT, Miller got the puck at his own blue line and headed up ice
1-on-1 with Notre Dame forward Alex Steeves.
He went to his left and maneuvered around Steeves, cut to his right and headed for the front of the net, where he deposited the puck past goalie Ryan Bischel for the game-winner.
SCOUTING THE IRISH:
Junior Alex Steeves leads the team in scoring with 13 goals and 13 assists for 26 points. Only one of Steeves' goals has come on the power play.
The Slaggert brothers are No. 2 and 3 in scoring. Graham, a junior, has six goals and 16 assists for 22 points. Landon, a freshman, has five goals and 11 assists for 16 points.
Graham and Landon's father, Andy, is in his 28th
season as an assistant coach at Notre Dame. He played for the Irish from 1986-89.
Steeves and the Slaggerts form Notre Dame's top line with Graham at center, Landon on left wing and Steeves on right wing.
Other offensive threats include sophomore Max Ellis (3-8-11), senior Colin Theisen (6-4-10) and a pair of junior defensemen – Nick Leivermann (5-9-14) and Spencer Stastney (5-6-11).
Notre Dame is averaging 2.71 goals-per-game, which is fifth in the Big Ten. The Irish power play in converting at 16.7% (10-for-60). Defensively, they're allowing 2.88 goals-per-game, fourth in the Big Ten. Notre Dame's penalty killing is fifth at 78.8%.
Senior goalie Dylan St. Cyr, who has started 13 of his team's last 14 games, has a 7-8-1 record, a 2.68 goals-against-average, a .910 saves percentage and one shutout.
Sophomore Ryan Bischel, who played in both games against MSU in December, is 3-4-1, with a 2.87 GAA and a .890 saves percentage.
NODLER TIES FOR SCORING LEAD:
With his goal last Friday at Minnesota, sophomore center Josh Nodler
moved into a three-way tie for the MSU scoring lead with right wing Mitchell Lewandowski
and defenseman Dennis Cesana
with 11 points apiece.
Nodler has three goals and eight assists, Lewandowski has six goals and five assists and Cesana, the set-up guy, has one goal and 10 assists.
This season, Nodler has taken on more responsibility as a front-line center. Coach Danton Cole
says Nodler has gotten better and better as the season progressed.
"It's been good. He came in as a true (18-year-old) freshman and we don't have a lot of those,'' Cole said. "It was nice that he was able to come in and play down in the lineup behind Patrick Khodorenko
and get his feet wet and not have a lot of pressure.
"He has a little more pressure now. As a sophomore, he's the guy who had to jump in and be our No. 1 center a lot of nights, and it's been good.''
As a freshman, the 5-foot-11, 191-pounder from Oak Park, Michigan, had three goals and five assists for eight points in 36 games.
"It's a tough league to put up points but he's done a good job with that, and defensively he's gotten better,'' Cole said. "He's much stronger, his skating is something he's taken a lot of time to work on.
"You'll see his points expand in the next couple years, and hopefully they'll expand here in the next few weeks, as well.''
What makes playing center more difficult than playing right wing or left wing? Nodler says it has to do with more responsibility, especially defensively.
"What's unique about playing center is you're kind of a two-way player, having to be involved in the offense and involved in the defense and that's different from being a winger,'' Nodler said. "As a center, you're playing down low and helping out on both sides of the ice
in the defensive zone, as opposed to wingers who are usually taking the D-man on the left for right sides.
"The center is usually playing left, middle and right down low. That's hard to adjust to just because there's more range to cover.''
Nodler worked on all aspects of his game after last season, with an emphasis on speed and quickness.
"The main thing I wanted to work on coming into this season and throughout the season is continuously playing with speed,'' he said. "At the college level, there's a lot of older guys who are very mature, so the game is so fast and never really stops. You have to be able to move your feet and think and play at a high level.''
IN THE BIG TEN:
First-place Minnesota is off this weekend after its series at Penn State was postponed – and likely canceled – because of COVID-19 issues with the Nittany Lions' program.
The No. 4/4 Gophers will complete their season next weekend with a home series against fourth-place Michigan.
Meanwhile, second-place Wisconsin plays host to sixth-place Ohio State on Friday and Saturday. The No. 5/5 Badgers finish their regular season next weekend at Michigan State.
No. 7/7 Michigan, which has had three games postponed and it's not known if they'll be rescheduled, plays a non-conference series against Arizona State on Friday and Saturday in Ann Arbor.
In next weekend's other conference series, fifth-place Penn State is at Notre Dame. In addition, Ohio State is home against Arizona State in two non-league games - the last two of the season for the Sun Devils.
Wisconsin sophomore right wing Cole Caufield continues to lead the Big Ten and nation in goals with 19 and points with 37 in 24 games. He has seven power-play goals, which is tied for most in the country.
First-place Minnesota is the Big Ten's best offensive team, averaging 3.88 goals-per-game, and the Gophers are No. 1 defensively, averaging 1.83 goals-against-per-game.