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Penn State Nittany Lions

Defense-first Irish present a whole new challenge for Gophers

They survived their dates with a quick-shooting, offense-first Penn State team last weekend, earning a split to stay in the thick of the Big Ten race. Now the Gophers (7-8-4 overall, 4-3-3-0 Big Ten) go on the road to Notre Dame, facing an Irish team that seemingly scores goals only begrudgingly.

At this renowned educational institution founded on faith, they seem to feel that allowing goals is downright sinful.

The Irish joined the Big Ten as an affiliate member a little more than a year ago, and the first conference game between the Gophers and Notre Dame set the tone for what fans can expect, with the Irish prevailing 1-0 in November 2017. It’s a hockey style where the importance of protecting the puck on every possession is heightened, and errors loom larger.

“They kind of play a very structured game. Very hard to score against them. If they put one on the board they’re going to sit back and try to keep their shutout and try to beat you 1-0,” said Gophers co-captain Tyler Sheehy. “So we’ve got to be ready for that and don’t turn pucks over. It’s just the little mistakes that they’re looking for to capitalize on.”

After upsetting the Gophers in the 2017 NCAA playoffs en route to a Frozen Four trip, last season appeared to be the Year of the Irish, until the final game of the season. Notre Dame stormed to the Big Ten regular season and playoff titles, and made the program’s second trip to the NCAA title game in St. Paul.

But an even more defensive-minded club tripped Notre Dame up in the finale, and they fell 2-1 to Minnesota Duluth.

The road has been tougher for the Irish in their sophomore Big Ten season, but they enter the weekend ranked ninth in the country with a 12-6-1 overall record (5-4-0-0 in Big Ten play), despite losing two of their past three. Notre Dame has allowed 42 goals in 19 games, which is best in the conference, but that stat is skewed a bit after Penn State scored a season-high nine goals versus the Irish right before the holiday break.

They’re coming off a 4-2 loss to Michigan played outdoors before a crowd of 23,000 at Notre Dame’s legendary football stadium last weekend.

“I think their structure is better defensively. They seem to be a little bit more structured, especially in the neutral zone,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said of the Gophers. Jackson, who coached Lake Superior State to a pair of NCAA titles in the 1990s, became the Notre Dame program’s all-time wins leader on New Year’s Eve with a victory over Boston College.

“With Bob Motzko they’re playing very similar to St. Cloud (State), which has given us major problems over the years,” he added.

Against Penn State, the Gophers’ successful game plan was to attack, and play their own style within what the Nittany Lions were trying to do. Heading to Notre Dame, they’re expecting a similar tactic to take shape, despite the contrasting opponent styles over these two weekends.

“One is a little bit run-and-gun, and the other is very tight and very methodical. The styles are different,” Motzko acknowledged. “You do have to honor that and be very patient, limit mistakes, but find our game inside that.”

Both games start at 6 p.m. CT, with NBC Sports Network televising the Friday game. Saturday’s game will not be broadcast locally, but video can be streamed on NBCSports.com.

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