The unthinkable has happened. After 13 straight conference victories and 16 straight wins overall, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish suffered their first Big Ten conference loss this past Sunday when they were defeated 5-0 by the Wisconsin Badgers at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.
If Notre Dame doesn’t play at the United Center anytime in the near future, it would be hard to blame them. Before Sunday, the last time the Irish played at the home of the Chicago Blackhawks was when they were defeated 6-1 by eventual national champion Denver in the 2017 Frozen Four semifinals back in April. They’ve been outscored 11-1 in the past two instances they’ve played at the United Center.
Despite the minor road bump, Notre Dame retained the #1 ranking in both major college hockey polls, the USA Hockey Magazine/USA Today and USCHO polls. The Irish will look to keep that ranking and get back on track when they take on the #13 Minnesota Golden Gophers this weekend in an important Big Ten road series.
Where, When, And How To Watch
Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, Minnesota (Games 1 and 2)
When: Friday, January 26, 8 p.m. EST (Game 1) and Saturday, January 27, 8 p.m. EST (Game 2)
How To Watch: ESPN2 (Game 1) and Fox Sports North Plus (Game 2)
Tale of the Tape
Minnesota is led by head coach Don Lucia, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1981 where he played four years as a defenseman for the hockey team. Lucia’s son, Mario, was a forward for Notre Dame from 2012 to 2016 and now plays minor league hockey for the Minnesota Wild organization. After serving as the head coach at Alaska-Fairbanks and Colorado College, Lucia was hired by Minnesota in 1999 where he has been the head coach ever since. In 19 seasons as coach for the Golden Gophers, Lucia’s record is 453-239-72, including a 15-12-1 record this season. The winningest coach in the storied college hockey program's history, Lucia coached Minnesota to back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003, and finished as national runner-up in 2014. He is one of just four coaches to win national titles in consecutive years.
This year, the Gophers have been stellar at home (11-4-0 home record) but have struggled on the road (2-8-1 away record). This will be the second of two series these teams will play this season. Notre Dame and Minnesota met for a two game series at the Compton Family Ice Arena during the weekend of Nov. 24-25, when the Irish swept the Gophers by 1-0 and 5-2 scores during the midst of their 16 game winning streak. Notre Dame also defeated Minnesota 3-2 in the 2017 NCAA Northeast Regional semifinal back on March 25.
Minnesota’s roster is loaded with NHL level talent as 14 of their players have been selected in the NHL Entry Draft. Their most explosive player is freshman forward Casey Mittelstadt, who was selected with the 8th overall pick by the Buffalo Sabres in last summer’s NHL Draft. Mittelstadt has recorded 20 points (7 goals, 13 assists) in 24 games this season and recently helped Team USA win a bronze medal at the World Junior Championships. The Gophers’ leading scorer this season is sophomore forward Rem Pitlick, who has 21 points (9 goals, 12 assists) in 28 games. The Gophers are coming off of a two game sweep over Michigan State last weekend. Junior forward Ben Gates Jr. received the Big Ten conference third star of the week honors after recording four points in Minnesota’s sweep over the Spartans. Another player to watch on Minnesota is sophomore defenseman Ryan Lindgren, a second round draft pick by the Boston Bruins in 2016 who also represented Team USA at the World Juniors.
Notre Dame goes into this weekend first in the Big Ten standings with a 13-1-0 conference record and 39 points, while Minnesota is tied with Wisconsin for fifth with a 6-9-1 conference record and 20 points. Despite having only the sixth best overall scoring offense in the conference at 2.68 G/GM, the Gophers also have the third best overall scoring defense in the Big Ten at 2.50 G/GM. Minnesota also leads the conference in overall penalty minutes per game with 12.2.
As I mentioned earlier, Minnesota has played their best hockey this season at home. I expect the crowd at 3M Arena at Mariucci (formerly Mariucci Arena) to be loud and rowdy with the #1 team in college hockey coming to town. The Super Bowl will be in Minneapolis next week, but this weekend will belong to the Irish and the Gophers. The series sweep by the Irish earlier in the season will be fresh in the Gophers’ minds. The second game of that series, a 5-2 Notre Dame win, was a rough contest that got very physical near the end. Notre Dame should expect Minnesota to be out for revenge.
This feels like it’s going to end in a series split. Notre Dame is going to have to put that 5-0 blowout loss to Wisconsin behind them and prove that game was an isolated incident. The Irish will need goaltender Cale Morris to be his usual stellar self and hope the top line of captain Jake Evans, Cal Burke and Cam Morrison will have a similar game to the one they had in that 5-2 win over Minnesota earlier this season, when Burke finished with two goals and Evans and Morrison recorded three points each.
I predict Notre Dame will win Friday’s game, followed by Minnesota answering with a win on Saturday. Friday night’s game will be broadcasted nationally on ESPN2, which could mean we’ll get to hear this classic gem once again.