It took until the early hours of Monday morning, but No. 11 Notre Dame has an opponent now for the second round off the CCHA playoffs this weekend.
Irish coach Jeff Jackson said he has honed in on special teams play during his team's bye week.
The Irish will host a best-of-three series starting Friday night against Bowling Green, the conference’s ninth-ranked team. Bowling Green’s last trip to South Bend was only a little more than a week ago, when Notre Dame swept the Falcons in the last two games of the regular season.
Since then, Notre Dame has been waiting to find out its next opponent. The conference reseeds its brackets after each round of the tournament, which meant the Irish had to wait for Michigan State to finish playing Alaska in Fairbanks Sunday night to learn who they would face. The Spartans, the league’s last place team, upset Alaska. If Alaska had won, Notre Dame would have been hosting rival Michigan for the weekend.
“No matter who comes into this building it’s going to be a tough series, it’s the playoffs,” Irish captain Anders Lee said last week. “The teams coming in are going to be playing for their season, as are we. No matter who it is it’s going to be a great series.”
Lee and his teammates took advantage of the weekend away from the rink, their first since December, to recharge their legs and their minds for the postseason. Notre Dame skated only three times last week and treated the bye week in some ways like a brief return to training camp.
“Some teams have had off weeks in the second half, we haven’t. It allows guys that may be dinged up a little bit to get healed. Mentally it just allows you to get refocused and refreshed,” head coach Jeff Jackson said.
Jackson took the practice time that would normally be dedicated to installing a game plan this week and invested it in improving Notre Dame’s special teams units. The Irish have slumped at times during the second half on the power play and the penalty kill. They have killed 82.4 percent of their penalties this year, which ranks 31st out of 59 Div. I teams.
“Right now it’s just about a mindset for us,” Jackson said. “It’s the details of our penalty kill that need to improve. We need to clear the puck better. We need to win faceoffs. It’s some really specific things that are hurting our penalty kill.”
The power play (18.2 percent success rate) got a jolt of life from facing Bowling Green in the regular season finale. After going 0-for-16, the Irish converted a pair of power play goals on both nights against the Falcon in 4-1 and 3-1 victories.
Three of the four goals came from the team’s second unit, not usually counted on to produce much with the man advantage.
“It’s good for the first power play because a lot of times our first power play, they’re playing a lot and they get a lot of ice time. So when we can help them out like that it’s great for them because it increases the time they can play,” said junior David Gerths, who scored one of the two extra-attacker goals last Saturday night.
Jackson said he was conscious of finding ways to maintain some of that momentum during the week off. Notre Dame has lost only once in its last nine games, its longest unbeaten streak of the season. The coach said he’s filled practice time with mini-games to keep the team engaged and competitive during an unusually long layoff.
Bowling Green, who advanced to South Bend by knocking off Lake Superior State 7-0 Sunday evening, will put the Irish to the test starting Friday night.