Michigan Tech (13-8-3) kicks off 2017 with a huge non-conference series in South Bend, Ind. against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (11-6-2). The pairwise implications are aplenty as the Huskies have their last chance to give themselves a boost from playing a highly-ranked team on the road. Notre Dame is riding a four-game winning streak, including a tight 3-2 victory against Boston College two weeks ago. This streak has pushed them into the bubble of an at-large bid, sitting 12th in the PWR.
At last weekend’s GLI, the Huskies had their best defensive weekend of the year, shutting out the University of Michigan on Thursday followed by holding Western Michigan scoreless for over 70 minutes. MTU has decreased their goals against per game to 1.96, good for 4th in the nation. This is equal parts a product of a system that gives up very few shots and having an elite goaltender. The last nine games have been an incredible run: more than one goal allowed only once, with only two of those nine games in Houghton.
The most shocking part of this run is that they only a 6-2-1 record to show for it. If the Huskies had any consistent scoring, there is no saying where this team could be both in record and in the pairwise. The GLI showed exactly what Michigan Tech's weakness is: scoring from the forwards. Both of the Huskies' tallies against Michigan came from defenseman who hadn't scored a goal prior to that game. The lack of offense haunted them on Friday in a game that cannot be seen as anything other than a lost opportunity.
Life will not get easier for Tech's forwards when they go visit Notre Dame on Friday and Saturday. The Irish are anchored by one of the best in the game, junior goaltender Cal Peterson. Not only is he an elite talent, but he's scalding hot: Peterson has three shutouts in four games, two of which came last weekend against Alaska which earned him the NCAA's second star of the week.
Notre Dame doesn't just rely on their backstop to win games for them, either. They have a top-ten offense that has not scored less than 3 goals in a game since November 26th. The Irish attack is paced by junior alternate captain Anders Bjork. His 14 goals has him tied for 3rd in the country, and is 5th in the nation in points with 32. Unlike many of ND's stars of the past who have been imposing figures, the 5'11" Bjork is speedy with elite hands. MTU might be one team that has the speed to keep him at bay, but he is a game-changing player who the defense needs to be aware of.
Even with a star in Bjork, the Irish don't have a top power play, sitting just outside the top 15 in the nation at 20%. Still, this is an advantage over MTU's 27th ranked PP which scores at a 17.7% rate. While the Huskies still struggle to stay out of the box, they have a top-8 penalty kill. ND's kill is middling, standing outside the top 20. Tech is going to struggle to find advantages in this game, but special teams could be one area especially if the refs decide to be liberal with their whistles.
Keys to the game
- Find some consistency up front. It is not shocking that Michigan Tech leads the nation in goals by defensemen. If the forwards start finding the net, the Huskies will be a scary team in the postseason. Notre Dame’s strong defense and goaltending will make this a tall task. MTU needs guys like Joel L’Esperance (F, Jr.) and Tyler Heinonen (F, Sr.) to find some success to bring confidence into the second half of WCHA play.
- Take advantage on special teams. If Tech is going to win a game or two this weekend, their best chance is to capitalize on the man advantage. Neither team has established their power play as a real weapon this season, but MTU has the advantage of a shutdown penalty kill.
- Learn from the Irish. This may sound strange, but Tech is going to see a team this weekend that does a lot of the same things well but without the same struggles. The Irish are also a speed team with a goaltender they trust to clean up everything. There is potential here for the Huskies to see what Notre Dame does well offensively and apply it to their game down the road.
Notre Dame is a tough opponent who is on a roll right now, and has every reason to want to win both games considering the precarious nature of their spot in the pairwise. Michigan Tech will be playing hungry, likely still not over the devastating loss in the GLI last weekend. Head Coach Mel Pearson is going to channel that energy into strong play this weekend. Four of Notre Dame’s six losses have come at Compton Family Ice Arena, so home ice advantage has not been much of a factor for the Irish this season. I think the Huskies will outplay the Irish at least one night, leading to a split. Notre Dame wins Friday, 3-1. Michigan Tech wins Saturday. 2-1.
Friday’s game starts at 7:35 ET and Saturday’s starts at 7:05ET. Both games will be televised by NBC Sports Network.