Notre Dame skaters take positive vibes into regular-season series finale at No. 4 Michigan

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent
Michigan forward Matty Beniers (10) skates with the puck as Notre Dame defenseman Nick Leivermann (4) defends during the Notre Dame-Michigan Big Ten hockey game on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Ind.

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s postseason hockey destiny is riding on its own sticks this weekend when the Fighting Irish close out the Big Ten regular season at powerhouse Michigan in its oftentimes friendly (for the Irish) confines of Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich.

On paper, the odds that coach Jeff Jackson’s No. 19 Irish (14-14-4 overall, 9-10-3 Big Ten for 31 points, tied with Penn State for fifth) can finish among the top four teams in the league are long. Michigan coach Brandon Naurato’s No. 4 Wolverines (20-10-2, 12-9-1 Big Ten for 36 points, tied with Ohio State for second) are one of the nation’s top offensive teams.

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According to captain and graduate defenseman Nick Leivermann, the Irish continue to dream what others think is an impossible dream — to gain home ice for the first round of the Big Ten Postseason Tournament which begins next weekend (March 3-5) and to finish with a .500 season or better to get consideration for a seventh straight appearance in the 16-team NCAA Tournament.

“Obviously we’re fighting for our lives to earn a bid into the tournament,” said the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Leivermann who is tied for third in team scoring with 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). “This is definitely going to be a playoff series for us. You can’t go there thinking it’s going to be easy because Yost is one of the hardest environments to play. Plus, anytime Notre Dame and Michigan match up it’s going to be a good game.”

Since Leivermann arrived as a freshman for the 2018-19 season, Notre Dame has played Michigan 19 times and recorded 11 victories. The last Irish triumph came Nov. 12 at the Compton Family Ice Arena when Notre Dame rallied from a 2-0 first-period deficit for a 3-2 overtime victory on Grant Silianoff’s goal with the teams skating 3-on-3.

Notre Dame defenseman Nick Leivermann (4) skates with the puck during the Ohio State-Notre Dame NCAA hockey game on Saturday, February 11, 2023, at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Indiana.

Last season, the Irish swept all four games from Michigan in the regular season but then dropped a 2-1 decision in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals to the Wolverines before a passionate and sometimes crazed crowd in sold-out Yost where more than 6,000 are expected for the Friday (7 p.m.) and Saturday (8 p.m.) games.

“Their student section is right behind our bench — they can almost lean over and touch you,” noted Leivermann, who chuckled when remembering some of the signs he, his teammates and coaching staff encounter that are plastered on the plexiglass behind them. “There are definitely a few that get a little personal. But we like it.”

Like it so much that prior to that heartbreaking loss last March, the Irish had won seven straight games at Yost, the first of which came during Leivermann’s freshman campaign. And those Michigan teams weren’t exactly devoid of talent. Going into this season, Michigan led the nation with 21 players on NHL opening day rosters.

This season, Michigan’s roster includes four first-round draft picks (defenseman Luke Hughes, right wing Mackie Samoskevich, left wing Rutger McGroarty and center Frank Nazar III) and two others who are expected to go in the first round of the 2023 draft (center Adam Fantilli and right wing Gavin Brindley). Their offensive talents are a big reason why Michigan is third in the nation scoring (4.00 goals per game) and seventh in power-play goals with 31.

“That’s something some teams will look at and be a little frightened about,” Leivermann said. “The way we’ve always approached it is any time you can beat players of that caliber, a team of that caliber, you are doing something right and you’re going to have fun with it. So, we’re excited. It’s all about the belief factor. At the end of the day, you’re playing a game of hockey and you’ve got to believe in yourself and the team.”

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Though challenged offensively this season, the Irish enter the series off a bye weekend which followed a five-point weekend against Ohio State (a 2-1 victory followed by 2-2 tie and shootout victory) and with a hot goalie in senior Ryan Bischel, who stopped 87 of 90 shots, including 50 in the tie and another unofficial six saves in the shootout. He is one of nine semifinalists for the Mike Richter Goaltender of the Year Award. 

“I’ve always felt Ryan was a sound goalie,” Leivermann said. “This year he’s matured as a person and a player. He’s our guy. We believe that.”

If the Irish can pick up four points this weekend and Wisconsin splits its series at Penn State, Notre Dame would pass fourth-place Michigan State and have home ice for the first round of the playoffs. An Irish sweep, a Minnesota home sweep of Ohio State and a Wisconsin-Penn State split would catapult the Irish to a second-place finish behind the Gophers.

“That’s hilarious. Back in November people knocked us out of the running,” Leivermann said. “It’s crazy there are so many different things that can happen.”

Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Michigan Wolverines

  • When/Where: Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Red Berenson Rink in Yost Ice Arena (5,800), Ann Arbor, Mich.
  • Records: Notre Dame is 14-14-4 overall and 9-10-3 in Big Ten for 31 points and tie for fifth with Penn State. … Michigan is 20-10-2 overall and 12-9-1 in Big Ten for 36 points and tie for second place with Ohio State. 
  • Radio: WZOC-FM (94.3) and
  • TV/Streaming: Big Ten Plus Friday, Big Ten Network Saturday. 
  • Last week: Notre Dame was idle after beating Ohio State 2-1 Feb. 10 and tying Ohio State 2-2 (and winning shootout 3-2) Feb. 11 in series at Compton Family Ice Arena. … Michigan tied Ohio State 3-3 (but lost shootout 1-0) Feb. 16 in Columbus and lost 4-2 to Buckeyes Feb. 18 in Faceoff on the Lake outdoors game at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.

Big Ten standings: 1. Minnesota 17-4-1, 51 points (clinched title and first-round tournament bye) (23-8-1 overall); 2T. Michigan 12-9-1, 36 points (20-10-2 overall); 2T. Ohio State 11-9-2, 36 points (18-11-3 overall); 4. Michigan State 10-12-2, 34 points (16-16-2 overall); 5T. Penn State 9-12-1, 31 points (19-12-1 overall); 5T. Notre Dame 9-10-3, 31 points (14-14-4 overall); 7. Wisconsin 5-17-0, 15 points (12-20-0 overall).

Rankings: Notre Dame is No. 19 in USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine coaches’ poll and No. 20 in media poll. … Michigan is No. 4 in both polls. … Notre Dame is No. 16 in NCAA Tournament PairWise Comparison Rankings and Michigan is No. 3. … Notre Dame and Michigan are first and second in strength of schedule.

Coaches: Jeff Jackson (390-244-70 in 18th season at Notre Dame and 572-296-95 in 24th season overall). … Michigan, Brandon Naurato (20-10-2 in first season at school and overall).

Rivalry: After 159 games, Michigan leads series 84-70-5. … Wolverines are 52-39-3 in games played in Ann Arbor, but Irish won first meeting 3-2 (OT) at Weinberg Coliseum on Jan. 17, 1922. … The teams split two games at Compton Family Ice Arena earlier this season. … Michigan won 5-1 Nov. 11, outshooting the Irish 44-24 as Mackie Samoskevich and T.J. Hughes each had a goal and an assist and Adam Fantilli and Luke Hughes each had two assists. … A day after making 39 saves, Irish goalie Ryan Bischel stopped 31 shots to allow the Irish to rebound from a 2-0 deficit on goals by Tyler Carpenter and Chayse Primeau for a 3-2 victory Nov. 12 on Grant Silianoff’s goal at 2:26 of overtime.

Scouting Fighting Irish: Graduate center Chayse Primeau (8-13-21) has taken over scoring lead from junior right wing Ryder Rolston (7-13-20), senior forward Trevor Janicke (8-10-18) and grad defenseman and captain Nick Leivermann (6-12-18). … Junior forward Landon Slaggert (6-6-12) has scored four goals in his last five games, including both goals in Irish 2-1 victory Feb. 10 vs. Ohio State. … Senior goaltender Ryan Bischel, a semifinalist for the Mike Richter Goaltender of the Year Award with eight others, has started all 32 games and has a 14-14-3 record. … Bischel leads nation with 1,015 saves, is third in saves percentage (.930), is tied for seventh with four shutouts and is 26th with his 2.42 goals-against average. … NCAA team statistics (out of 61 teams as of Feb. 20): Scoring offense, 2.34 goals per game (52nd); scoring defense, 2.66 goals per game (22nd); scoring margin, -0.31 goals per game (36th); faceoff-win percentage, 0.498 (975-981) (30th); power-play percentage, 0.182 (20 of 110) (37th); power-play goals scored, 20 (35th); penalty-kill percentage, 0.754 (86 of 114) (55th); shorthanded goals scored, 2 (34th); team penalty minutes per game, 12.03 (18th). 

Scouting Wolverines: High-scoring Michigan has seven players who have scored 20 or more points led by freshman center Adam Fantilli (19-30-49) who is expected to be a top-five pick in the NHL Draft this summer. … Lineup features eight freshmen, four sophomores and four first-round NHL draft choices in sophomore defenseman Luke Hughes (9-27-36), sophomore right wing Mackie Samoskevich (15-18-33), freshman center Frank Nazar III (1-1-2) and freshman left wing Rutger McGroarty (10-14-24). … Erik Portillo, a 6-foot-6 junior goaltender from Sweden, is 19-9-1 with a 3.06 goals-against average and .908 saves percentage. … NCAA team statistics (out of 61 teams as of Feb. 20): Scoring offense, 4.00 goals per game (3rd); scoring defense, 3.16 goals per game (44th); scoring margin, 0.84 goals per game (11th); faceoff-win percentage, 0.479 (951-1,036) (45th); power-play percentage, 0.231 (31 of 134) (17th); power-play goals scored, 31 (7th); penalty-kill percentage, 0.785 (117 of 149) (43rd); shorthanded goals scored, 1 (45th); team penalty minutes per game, 18.25 (2nd). 

Quoting Jeff Jackson: “We’re trying to get healthy and at the same time we’ve had good practices. Last week gave them a couple additional days off. … You’ve got to make sure you don’t lose your competitive edge in the process.”

(Five teams still in hunt for home ice in playoffs) “I don’t ever remember being in this situation. The conference is just that deep. The seventh-place team, Wisconsin, is not a bad team. The conference is just crazy good this year.” 

(Coaching at Yost — Jackson once was a grad assistant at Michigan): “It’s an old building but it still has a lot of charm to it. I think most teams enjoy playing in Yost. Obviously, the fans are a little on the rough side at times. I don’t hear a lot of it, but the student section and the band make for a good college hockey environment.”

(Bischel) “We’ve actually started to play more consistent hockey in front of him. There are three teams in this conference which really emphasize volume shooting. When you play those teams, you can get 40, 50 shots a game. Sometimes I think Ryan plays better in those situations. He’s been our best player consistently throughout the year.”

Next up: Teams will play first-round, best-of-three series in the Big Ten Postseason Tournament March 3-5.

John Fineran, Tribune Correspondent