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NCAA Championship Game Preview: Notre Dame VS Minnesota-Duluth

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It all comes down to this. Irish seek first hockey national championship in school history.

NCAA Hockey: Frozen Four-Michigan vs Notre Dame Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

All season long I’ve avoided saying it would happen, out fear of jinxing anything. But now, here we are. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are playing for a national championship. A victory on Saturday night over the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs will give them their first hockey national title in school history.

The Irish and Bulldogs are the only teams remaining from last year’s Frozen Four. Both teams lost to the Denver Pioneers a year ago, Notre Dame in the Frozen Four and Minnesota-Duluth in the championship game. Saturday will mark the second time the Irish have played in the national championship game, and the fourth for the Bulldogs.

Fans of the Bulldogs only have to travel a little over 150 miles to Xcel Energy Center, the site of this year’s Frozen Four. It happens to be the same building where the Bulldogs won their only national championship in 2011. The Irish also made it to the Frozen Four that year, but fell to the Michigan Wolverines.

Head coach Scott Sandelin was behind the bench for Minnesota-Duluth when they won their only national championship. Sandelin’s opposition across the ice, 2018 national coach of the year Jeff Jackson, won two national championships as head coach of the Lake Superior State Lakers in 1992 and 1994. He also won one as an assistant at Lake State. All week long, he’s been referring to his team as the “cardiac kids” and now, thanks to the heroic goal of Irish captain Jake Evans, he’s one win away from giving them the same joy he’s felt three times before.

Where: Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, MN

When: Saturday, April 7, 7:30 PM EDT

Watch: ESPN

Tale of the Tape

Minnesota-Duluth has been the surprise of the NCAA Tournament. Ironically, it’s thanks to a Notre Dame victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes that the Bulldogs even got the chance to play for a national championship. Minnesota-Duluth got off to a slow start this season, finding themselves under .500 in December but were able to put together winning streaks in January and February. The last time before this week that they were in St. Paul, losses to the Denver Pioneers and North Dakota Fighting Hawks in the NCHC Tournament had them needing help to be the final at-large over the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

While no team can replicate the drama that has been synonymous with the Irish since the end of the regular season, the Bulldogs have won some nailbiters of their own en route to the championship game. In the NCAA West Regional semifinal against the Minnesota State Mavericks, they erased a 2-0 deficit by tying the game with under five minutes in regulation then completed the upset in overtime. Since then, they’ve upset both the Air Force Falcons and Ohio State by scores of 2-1.

Much like the Wolverines who the Irish defeated in the semifinal on Thursday night, the Bulldogs have grown into a far superior team than they were at the start of the year. They had some growing pains early on while finding ways to replace six NHL players from last year’s team that made the national championship game. Despite the fact that Notre Dame was one of the favorites to make it this far and Minnesota-Duluth barely made the tournament, there are similarities between the two teams.

Neither team in Saturday’s contest has a certain line that they rely on. The Irish and Bulldogs both have very deep rosters with guys that can step in at any time. In the last five games where the Irish have won either in overtime or with 31 seconds or less in regulation, a different hero has scored the game winner. Minnesota-Duluth has a lot of balance up front, with five forwards that have at least ten goals this season. Their leader in points in freshman defenseman Scott Perunovich, who is one of five new defensemen for the Bulldogs.

All season long, we’ve talked about how first year goaltender Cale Morris has been the backbone for the Irish. The Notre Dame netminder was snubbed as one of the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, but is likely the favorite win the Mike Richter Award as most outstanding goaltender. The Bulldogs have a first-year goaltender of their own whose strong play has surprised people in Hunter Shepard. Both sophomores, the goaltenders in Saturday’s matchup have posted similar numbers. The save percentage for Morris was a mere .2 points better than Shepard’s, while Shepard’s GAA was less than .01 better than Morris.

Unlike the Bulldogs, the Irish are returning much of the same team from last year’s Frozen Four run. While their possession numbers aren’t great, the experience of Notre Dame’s veteran blue line has shown when they’ve been under pressure in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. The Irish are an incredible 14-3 in one goal games.

The Last Time

Saturday’s national championship game will be the first time these two teams meet this season. They did meet, however, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth, MN last year in non-conference play. The teams split the series, with the Bulldogs winning 4-3 and the Irish 3-1. In the series, the Irish got two goals from Andrew Oglevie, and one each from Jordan Gross, Dylan Malmquist, and Cam Morrison. The only Notre Dame player to have scored in the series that is no longer on the team is current Boston Bruin Anders Bjork.

Prediction

There are a lot of similarities between this and the semifinal game against Michigan. When I went to Yost Ice Arena to watch the Irish play the Wolverines in January, I was fully expecting the Irish to sweep the weekend series, which they did. Coming into Thursday night’s national semifinal, I was nervous. The Bulldogs have improved over the past few months just as well as the Wolverines did. This is a very deep team, with a variety of different guys that can chip in. However, the same has been said for Notre Dame since last season. While the teams match up quite evenly on paper, I think there’s something to be said for the experience of Jeff Jackson’s squad, and how they couldn’t have possibly been tested under pressure more since the end of the regular season. My prediction is that the Fighting Irish will score more goals than the Bulldogs.