With the amount of roster turnover over the past couple seasons, the Irish have had to manufacturer scoring.
As expected, it hasn’t been easy. Their 2.44 goals per game is good for 34th in the country.
“We’ve definitely struggled to score this season as a team, a few guys have been a little snake bit,” Irish junior forward Alex Steeves said. “The only thing you can do is keep pumping those guys up. We’re capable as a team and the big thing is that you’ve got to find confidence in yourself and not worry too much about the results. When you play the right way and you’re not gripping the stick too tight it tends to, whether it be the hockey gods or whatever, it tends to take care of itself.”
Steeves is one player that has lit the lamp consistently so far this season for Notre Dame.
“I’m really trying to be a reliable scorer for our coaches,” Steeves said. “I want to be able to be counted on. As someone that plays a lot of minutes, I don’t want to take those for granted and I want to produce and make them meaningful for the team.”
The Irish have played the 2021 portion of their schedule to an even 4-4-0 record. An impressive sweep of Minnesota on the road was a highlight but was followed with a humbling sweep at the hands of Michigan in South Bend. Last weekend they split two overtime games with Penn State.
“As a team we really just try to focus on ourselves and how we can get better,” Steeves said. “A lot of that, especially recently, has been on special teams. We worked really hard on special teams before the Minnesota series and we did really well, we had probably our best special teams weekend of the year there. Recently we haven’t had many games that have been dominated by special teams.
“In practice, we’re just kind of trying to focus on ourselves. Not getting too high or too low and keep trying build things the right way so come the end of the year we’re all on the same page.”
Steeves scored the lone goal of Friday night’s loss to the Nittany Lions and added another in Saturday’s 3-2 victory. His nine goals have him in a tie for 13th in the nation.
The Eden Prairie, Minn., native has spent most of the season on Notre Dame’s top line with brothers Graham and Landon Slaggert. Alex’s older brother Matt Steeves is also a forward for the Irish.
“Graham in particular has really taken a big step for us offensively this year, which is huge,” Steeves said. “Landon is doing a really-good job as a freshman of being, out of the three of us, the hardest type of player on the line, which helps us win a lot of puck battles and play some extended shifts in the offensive zone.”
Though Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan seem to have the inside track to nabbing the higher seeds in the tournament, Steeves still thinks the Irish are going to be a factor when the postseason comes around.
“There’s still a lot of room for parity,” he said. “Our main focus is putting ourselves in position to be a higher seed and in these 10 games to solidify what we think our identity is. We’re a team where people ending up playing us in that first game and they think, ‘Oh shoot, this is going to be a tough one.’”
Minnesota, Wisconsin prep for marquee matchup at Mariucci
The Gophers and Badgers didn’t have to wait long for their rematch.
27 days after Wisconsin dealt Minnesota its first loss of the season in Madison the two teams will get together again, this time in Minneapolis, this weekend.
Minnesota came back to earn the series split last time out and Wisconsin head coach Tony Granato is hoping for another exciting series this time around.
“We had two games with them to start the second half of the year which maybe were the two most-exciting college hockey games that I’ve been around in a long time,” he said. “I’m excited to see another opportunity for our team to see how we match up against one of the best, if not the best, in the country.”
The Badgers are five points behind Minnesota coming into the weekend, meaning that Wisconsin could vault into first place with a sweep. Granato said that the standings may add some fuel to the fire but added that the rivalry doesn’t necessarily need it.
“We have enough Minnesota kids, and Minnesota knows Wisconsin enough, that there’s still a deeper meaning than just two teams playing for first place” he said. “This is a rivalry that, for me, I remember every single game we played against the Gophers.
“These are the games that at the start of the year you circle. It really doesn’t matter where you are in the standings or what’s going on, you’re getting a chance to go play the Gophers and the Gophers are getting a chance to go play the Badgers.”
After splitting with the Badgers Minnesota went home and got swept by Notre Dame but has since responded by shellacking Arizona State and sweeping Ohio State last weekend.
Minnesota coach Bob Motzko said he was impressed with how the Gophers left their 20-goal weekend against ASU in the rear view and moved onto the series against the Buckeyes.
“We had a really-good week of practice and I thought we came out ready to play tonight,” Motzko said after Friday’s victory over Ohio State. “Coming off of (the Arizona State series) I give our guys a lot of credit, they got right back to work and they carried that work-ethic into the game tonight.”
Motzko also spoke after Saturday’s victory.
“I thought it was outstanding weekend for us. We came on the trip with 24 guys and everybody was part of it,” said Motzko. “We just played very solid all weekend.”
On paper, it is easy to get excited for this series. Minnesota has the nation’s most potent offense, averaging 4.22 goals per game. Wisconsin has the No. 9 offense averaging 3.72 goals per contest and features the No. 3 power play in the country converting 28.57 percent of opportunities.
Minnesota has featured a balanced scoring attack all season, but fans must be happy to see juniors Sammy Walker and Blake McLaughlin get their respective seasons on the right track. Walker had two goals and three assists last weekend and McLaughlin had one goal and three helpers.
“It’s been coming in the second half; we’ve seen it a few weekends now,” Motzko said of the duo. “I think this is the third weekend since Christmas we’ve seen it, and we’ve all seen it before, we’ve just been kind of waiting for that to come back. What great timing to get that back out of those two.”
Minnesota is a team that seems to have come of age this season, and Granato hopes his squad can mimic what their cross-border rival has done.
“Minnesota’s been on a nice run the last two years to build to this,” he said. “We’re in the process of building to try to get back to being a team that is a national contender. It’s setup to be a really-exciting series that all of college hockey will keep an eye on to see how it’s played and who comes out on top.”
For Wisconsin, a lot of the buzz, rightfully so, centers around Cole Caufield. The sophomore has 14 goals and 14 assists and leads the nation in goal-scoring. That said, he’s far from Wisconsin’s only weapon. Linus Weissbach, Dylan Holloway, Brock Caufield and Ty Pelton-Byce all have five or more goals for the Badgers this season.
“Those guys are, I don’t want to say quietly having really good years, but I think that balance that we have on our team does give us the ability that if Cole is being checked hard there’s some things that we can do to counter that,” Granato said.