No. 18 Irish skaters hope to rekindle season as talented No. 3 Michigan visits

John Fineran
Correspondent
Notre Dame forward Ryder Rolston (12) skates with the puck as Michigan State defenseman Nash Nienhuis (4) back checks during the Michigan State-Notre Dame NCAA hockey game on Saturday, October 29, 2022, at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Indiana.

SOUTH BEND — The No. 18 Notre Dame hockey team sure could use a little home cooking to get its hockey season back on track.

Currently mired in a three-game winless skid after 4-1 and 3-0 losses last weekend at currently No. 1 Minnesota, coach Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish are eager to play this weekend on the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena, and it doesn’t matter that this week’s opponent is another Big Ten powerhouse.

No. 3 Michigan, the highest scoring team in the country, provides the opposition Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 6 p.m. 

Talk about a wakeup call. 

“As a Notre Dame player, when you see the block ‘M’ on the schedule, you take it personal,” junior right wing Ryder Rolston, who hails from Traverse City, said.

Wisconsin's Corson Ceulemans skates with the puck as Notre Dame's Max Ellis back checks during the Wisconsin-Notre Dame Big Ten hockey tournament game on Sunday, March 06, 2022, at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Indiana.

Only once in five meetings last season between the long-time hockey rivals did the Irish fail to win. That 2-1 Michigan victory came last March 12 at Yost Ice Arena in the semifinal round of the Big Ten Tournament. A week later the Wolverines captured the title with a 4-3 victory at Minnesota and later made their way to the Frozen Four semifinals in Boston where they fell 3-2 in overtime to eventual NCAA champion Denver to complete a 31-10-1 season.

Four of those 10 losses came against Notre Dame during the regular season. Michigan was ranked No. 1 in the country Nov. 19 and 20 when the 14th-ranked Irish came to Yost and escaped with 3-2 and 5-4 overtime victories. Rolston scored the game-tying goal and then the game-winner in the opening victory, while teammate Max Ellis’ hat trick led the Irish to the two-game sweep backstopped by current Irish senior goalie Ryan Bischel, who turned away 28 and 37 Wolverine shots.

As the regular-season ended last Feb. 25 and 26, the No. 2 Wolverines arrived at Compton riding an eight-game winning streak to play the eighth-ranked Irish. Backstopped by red-hot goalie Matthew Galajda, Notre Dame scored 4-1 and 2-1 victories, the latter victory coming on Senior Night during which defenseman Nick Leivermann participated, not knowing he would be back as a graduate student and the team’s captain. 

Notre Dame defenseman Nick Leivermann (4) during the Michigan State-Notre Dame NCAA hockey game on Saturday, October 29, 2022, at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Indiana.

Leivermann, who led the Irish in scoring against the Wolverines last season with six assists, remembers fondly that 2021-22 squad didn’t back down to anyone, including a Wolverine team that included four first-round NHL draft choices in defenseman Owen Power (Buffalo), center Matty Beniers (Seattle), defenseman Quinn Hughes (New Jersey) and left wing/center Kent Johnson (Columbus). 

“It (the four-game regular-season sweep) all stemmed from a belief that we could,” he said. Only Hughes is back for his sophomore season — the other three are playing for their NHL teams.

“There’s obviously some high-talented players in the Big Ten,” Leivermann continued. “But going into every single night knowing you have the belief in your team is definitely the most vital thing to winning a hockey game.”

The roster isn’t the only thing that has changed in Ann Arbor since the end of last season. In August, head coach Mel Pearson was fired after an investigation into the program and was replaced on an interim basis by Brandon Naurato. Hughes and another first-round NHL draft choice, right wing Mackie Samoskevich (Florida), returned along with 6-foot-6 junior goalie Erik Portillo, a third-round 2019 NHL draft pick of Buffalo.

Naurato also has a handful of talented freshmen, including 19-year-old freshman center Adam Fantilli, an expected future No. 1 NHL draft choice who leads the nation in scoring with 20 points on nine goals and 11 assists. 

“He may be the best player in the country,” Jackson noted. “They’re a load. They’ve got a lot of weapons. The biggest thing for us to do is a better job possessing the puck and limit the time they actually have it.”

The Irish struggled last weekend in Minneapolis doing that against a talented Gopher squad and fell to 0-4-1 on the road. At home, however, the Irish are 4-0-1.

“The big thing for us, especially at this point of the season, is our resilience – playing with pride in this building,” Rolston said. “It’s playing with a chip on our shoulder. We have to play with the mentality that we are never going to lose in this building.”

“Everyone took a look in the mirror last weekend, especially Friday after we basically got our butts handed to us,” Leivermann added. “After Saturday, we talked about playing for each other, playing for the guy standing next to you. We need to try and use this weekend as a stepping stone in the season.”

Notre Dame vs. Michigan

  • When/Where: Friday 7:30 p.m. and Saturday 6 p.m. at Lefty Smith Rink (4,850) in Compton Family Ice Arena, South Bend
  • Tickets: Available through UND.com/Buy Tickets or at Compton box office
  • Radio: WZOC-FM (94.3) and UND.com
  • TV/Streaming: Peacock
  • Coaches: Notre Dame, Jeff Jackson, 380-235-68 in 18th season at Notre Dame and 562-287-93 in 24th season overall. … Michigan, Brandon Naurato, 8-2-0 in first season.
  • Last weekend: Notre Dame lost 4-1 Friday and 3-0 Saturday in Big Ten series at Minnesota. … Michigan split Big Ten series at Penn State, losing 3-0 Friday and winning 4-3 (OT) Saturday.
  • Rivalry: After 157 games,Michigan leads series 83-69-5, but Notre Dame leads 31-30-2 in games played in South Bend. … Notre Dame swept the 2021-22 regular-season games, winning twice in overtime at Ann Arbor 3-2 (Nov. 19) and 5-4 (Nov. 20) and at South Bend 4-1 (Feb. 25) and 2-1 (Feb. 26). … Michigan won Big Ten Tournament semifinal game 2-1 at Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor on March 12, 2022.
  • Rankings: Notre Dame is No. 18 in both the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine coaches’ poll and DCU/USCHO.com media poll. … Michigan is No. 3 in both.
  • Scouting Fighting Irish: Since 5-0 shutout of Michigan State Oct. 28, Notre Dame has scored just two goals in three games and one overtime (185 minutes) and gone 0-2-1. … Irish are 38th (out of 60) nationally in scoring offense (2.40 goals per game), 29th in scoring defense (2.70 goals per game), 31st in scoring margin (-0.30 goals per game) and 45th in power-play percentage (15.2 percent, 5 of 33). … Irish have gone six games without a power-play goal and are 0-for-16 during that span. … Notre Dame is 4-0-1 in Compton this season but 0-4-1 on the road. … Junior right wing Ryder Rolston (4-5-9) and grad center Chayse Primeau (2-6-8) lead team in scoring. … Sophomore left wing Justin Janicke (3-0-3) had only goal last weekend at Minnesota. … Defense is anchored by grad captain Nick Leivermann (3-2-5) and junior Drew Bavaro (1-4-5). … Senior goaltender Ryan Bischel is tied for second nationally in shutouts with two. … Bischel is 4-4-1 with 2.34 goals-against average and .932 saves percentage.
  • Scouting Wolverines: Michigan leads the nation in scoring offense (4.60 goals per game), is 32nd in scoring defense (2.80 goals per game), fourth in scoring margin (1.80 goals per game) and fifth in power-play percentage (31.3 percent, 15 of 48). … Freshman forward Adam Fantilli leads Wolverines in scoring (11-9-20) and plus/minus ratio (+11). … Michigan’s top line has Fantilli at center between sophomore right wing Mackie Samoskevich (8-7-15) and sophomore left wing Dylan Duke (4-6-10). … Two other freshmen forwards also have scored 10 or more points – T.J. Hughes (6-5-11) and Rutger McGroarty (4-5-10). … Defense is led by sophomore Luke Hughes (2-7-9), freshman Seamus Casey (3-7-10) and junior Jacob Truscott (1-8-9). … Junior goaltender Erik Portillo (7-1-0 record, 2.74 goals-against average, .905 saves percentage) is expected to play this weekend after not making trip to Penn State because of illness and being replaced by classmate Noah West (1-1-0, 2.51 average, .940 saves percentage)
  • Quoting Jeff Jackson: “We have to do a better job playing with discipline and taking advantage of opportunities … Our power play needs to get untracked … We need to possess the puck more in the offensive zone and get shots from those possessions.”