Notre Dame hockey feels underrated heading into exhibition with USA Under-18 team

John Fineran
Correspondent
Notre Dame had coach Jeff Jackson during the Notre Dame vs. Ohio State NCAA hockey game Friday, Dec. 3, 2021 at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Jeff Jackson has a good feeling about his 18th Notre Dame hockey team heading into Sunday’s 5 p.m. exhibition game against the U.S. National Development Program Under-18 team at the Compton Family Ice Arena.

“We’re bigger than I remember us and we’re just as fast,” Jackson said. “There are some similarities to last year’s team.”

Last season, Notre Dame finished 28-12 overall after losing to eventual NCAA runner-up Minnesota State 1-0 in the Albany (N.Y.) Regional championship game. The Irish were ranked No. 8 in the final rankings of the USCHO.com (media) and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine (coaches) polls. They start the current season ranked ninth and eighth, respectively, in the two polls and are hungry to prove themselves.

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“I’m excited about this group right now,” Jackson continued. “I think our depth is better upfront, and I think our depth is better at the back end (on defense). This team goes hard in practice. It’s going to be good for us to play a game and hit somebody outside of ourselves.”

That will happen Sunday against the Under-18 team which is 2-0 and will be arriving in South Bend from a Saturday night exhibition at Michigan State. It will be the 11th time the teams have met in an exhibition game, the ninth during Jackson’s tenure, and Notre Dame holds a 5-3-2 edge in the previous 10 meetings. Last season, the Under-18 team skated to a 4-3 victory on the Lefty Smith Rink ice at Compton.

“We started playing them regularly in the first game because it’s a good game to get your feet underneath you, to start seeing what areas you need to work on,” Jackson said. “Because of their speed and skill, they will make you work. That team last year had six first-rounders (in the NHL Draft). This team may have three or four. They are always fast, always good.”

Leading the scoring for the Under-18 team are a pair of Boston College forward prospects in Will Smith (three goals, five assists, eight points) and Ryan Leonard (5-2-7). They are followed by uncommitted forward Gabe Perreault (1-5-6) and Minnesota commit Oliver Moore (3-2-5). 

Three players on the team have made commitments to Notre Dame — defenseman Paul Fischer (1-3-4), forward Danny Nelson (1-2-3) and forward Carter Slaggert (0-0-0), the son of Irish associate head coach Andy Slaggert and younger brother of Graham and Landon. 

Graham is in the NHL camp of the Toronto Maple Leafs, while Landon, a first-team Big Ten preseason selection at forward, returns for his junior season with the Irish and is an alternate captain with senior forward Trevor Janicke to captain Nick Leivermann, a grad student defenseman.

Notre Dame's Nick Leivermann (4) looks to pass during the Notre Dame vs. RIT NCAA hockey game Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.

“We lost to USA last year and that’s something we’ve been thinking about,” said Leivermann, who missed five games because of injury but still finished with six goals and 21 assists for 27 points to share second-place scoring honors with junior forward Ryder Rolston (10-17-27) and graduated defenseman Spencer Stastney (7-20-27). The three finished a point behind leading scorer Max Ellis (16-12-28), who left after his junior campaign to sign with the Maple Leafs.

“We obviously don’t want to pay too much attention to (preseason) rankings,” Leivermann said. “We know we belong in the top five based on last season and what we’ve brought in this year. We’re excited.”

Leivermann heads a deep blueline corps that includes returnees in graduate Chase Blackmun, junior Zach Plucinski, sophomores Jake Boltmann, Ryan Helliwell and Hunter Weiss and three newcomers — freshman Michael Mastrodomenico, junior transfer Drew Bavaro (Sacred Heart) and grad student Ben Brinkman (Minnesota). 

Behind them returns senior goaltender Ryan Bischel, who posted a 2.08 goals-against average and .924 saves percentage with a 10-4 record and two shutouts in 16 games until Jackson went with the hot hand in the graduated Matthew Galajda (1.90 average, .933 saves percentage, two shutouts) late in the season and through the playoffs. Junior Joshua Graziano and freshman Jack Williams are Bischel’s backups.

Landon Slaggert (12-14-26), Janicke (15-9-24) and Rolston all will be expected to step up offensively at forward. 

“I’m fired up about this group,” Landon Slaggert said. “We have a lot of winners on this team, guys who come every day to compete.” 

The other returning forwards include graduate Jack Adams (6-10-16), seniors Solag Bakich (5-12-17) and Jesse Lansdell (8-11-19), juniors Grant Silianoff (5-13-18) and Brady Bjork (0-0-0), and sophomores Hunter Strand (8-7-15), Justin Janicke (2-8-10) and Tyler Carpenter (1-0-1). Graduate transfers Chayse Primeau (29-43-62 in four seasons at Omaha) and former Culver Military standout Jackson Pierson (31-57-88 in four seasons at New Hampshire) should be immediate help, and freshman Niko Jovanovic and Fin Williams will also be in the mix.

“I think one of the biggest things we haven’t had in the past is depth,” Trevor Janicke said. “This is the deepest team I’ve been a part of in my time here. That is something definitely to be excited about.”

COLLEGE HOCKEY

What: Notre Dame (0-0) vs. USA Under-18 (2-0)

Where: Compton Family Ice Arena

When: Sunday at 5 p.m.

Tickets: All seats $5