A very long time ago, the Big Ten Preseason Coaches’ Poll predicted a sixth-place finish for the Michigan hockey team. The Wolverines needed a while to shrug off those projections, but thanks to a second-half push, they did just that and more, storming into the national semifinal for the first time since 2011.
That year was also the last time the Frozen Four was played in St. Paul, and coincidentally, three of the four teams in this year’s field — Michigan, Minnesota-Duluth and Notre Dame — were there in 2011. Ohio State, making its first appearance since 1998, is an outlier in this regard only. The Buckeyes are one of three Big Ten teams, along with the Wolverines and Fighting Irish, in this year’s Frozen Four.
On Thursday, the Wolverines will face Notre Dame for the fifth time this year, and should they win, a familiar face will await them for the national championship. Either it will be their fiercest rival, Ohio State, which dealt them five losses during the regular season, or they’ll take on Minnesota-Duluth, which beat them in overtime for the 2011 national title. Michigan coach Mel Pearson, then an assistant under Red Berenson, has said that the loss still sticks with him.
Seven years later, the Wolverines are back in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, looking to make up for the heartbreak of 2011. The Daily’s hockey beat writers predict if they will do so:
Mel Pearson said last week that Michigan is “happy to be (in the Frozen Four),” and is playing “bonus hockey.” It’s the sentiment of a coach whose team wasn’t expected to even approach St. Paul this season, let alone the NCAA Tournament.
But now that the Wolverines are here? They might just mess around and win the whole damn thing.
Despite scares against Michigan Tech and Providence in the regional round, Notre Dame — with its Hobey Baker finalist goaltender, disciplined defense and balanced offense — is every bit as good as its No. 1 seed indicates. But Michigan has defeated the Fighting Irish twice, and played them dead-even in two losses in January, outshooting them 70-63. Out of Notre Dame’s six goals against the Wolverines this year, only one of them came from five-on-five play. Michigan is fully capable of creating scoring chances against the Fighting Irish’s defense, and as long as it plays most of the game at even strength, this game is effectively a toss-up. In a low-scoring tussle, I think the Wolverines can sneak a couple past Cale Morris — at least enough to win.
Ohio State — which should handle Minnesota-Duluth in the other semifinal — averages more and allows less goals per game than Notre Dame. The Buckeyes laid waste to Denver — the defending national champion — in the regional final, and in five meetings with them this season, Michigan has yet to win. But in the teams’ most recent matchup, the Wolverines fell to Ohio State in an overtime contest that was even in just about every way. Michigan’s lost only once since Feb. 9, and it came that night in Columbus.
For my money, the Buckeyes are the best team in the country. But with the Wolverines’ rapid improvement over the last two months — as well as Ohio State being without third-leading scorer Matthew Weis due to injury — there’s no reason that they can’t beat the Buckeyes once, short of being cursed to never defeat them again. In an unpredictable NCAA Tournament that saw two No. 1 seeds fall in their first game, I predict the title game will follow suit, and Michigan will raise a championship banner at Yost Ice Arena next season.
Almost two weeks ago, I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Michigan hockey national championship team and its eerie similarity to today’s Wolverines headed into the NCAA Tournament.
“Maybe this team won’t have the same success,” it read. “But the parallels can’t be ignored.”
Akin to 1998, this Wolverine team is the decided underdog, staring straight in the face of Notre Dame with slim expectations directed their way. Win and advance to battle thunderous Ohio State or Minnesota-Duluth. Like two decades ago, Michigan needs to embrace dogged, nothing-to-lose motivation to win its 10th National Championship in 25 Frozen Four attempts.
It’ll do just that.
Don’t get me wrong — navigating the Fighting Irish, arguably the best team on paper, is an arduous task. But the Wolverines’ last series against them shows its immense improvement as the season progressed and ability to rattle Morris early and often. On Feb. 16 in South Bend, Michigan outshot Notre Dame, 17-6, in the first period on the way to a 4-2 win. It was the Wolverines’ best-played period all season. Fast starts and holding leads continued, as they never trailed against Northeastern and Boston University in the Regional rounds. I don’t see this trend stopping against Notre Dame.
Then there’s a date against Ohio State or Minnesota-Duluth. With the former more likely to advance to the national championship, college sports’ foremost rivalry would again be on display.
The Buckeyes may be America’s most well-rounded team. They allow just 2.08 goals per game, succeeds on 89.29 percent of penalty kills and, with boasts a lethal first line of Tanner Laczynski, Mason Jobst and Freddy Gerard. While goaltender Sean Romeo may not be Morris, he’s been highly reliable down the stretch with dramatic saves late in games.
After being outscored, 17-6, in their first four contents against Ohio State and losing their fifth, 3-2, in overtime of the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, Michigan won’t be embarrassed again.
Secondary scoring from freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes and sophomore forwards Jake Slaker and Nick Pastujov — and solid netminding from sophomore Hayden Lavigne — will propel the Wolverines to college hockey’s apex, where not even the most optimistic prognosticator expected them to reside this season.
Prediction: Ohio State
Michigan has positioned itself right where it wanted to be this season. The Wolverines will be well-acquainted with their Thursday night opponent in St. Paul. Seeing Notre Dame — the Big Ten conference and tournament champion — for the fifth time this season actually looks like it could be a good thing for Michigan.
Rankings-wise, the Fighting Irish look like the clear favorite. They’ve also been either at the top of the nation or just under it all season. But judging by all four of the previous meetings this season, the Wolverines have played right there with them — or better. Michigan has a significant offensive edge, averaging 3.41 goals per game compared to Notre Dame’s 2.95. In fact, in all of their contests this season, the Fighting Irish haven’t shot more than two pucks past Hayden Lavigne. Of course, it is impossible not to recognize Cale Morris and his .945 save percentage, but the Wolverines proved twice in February that they can evade him enough times to pull off a win.
In the press conference following the regional, Mel Pearson noted that he “liked the matchup” with Notre Dame. His team should, too. And I believe Pearson’s squad will see a spot in the championship game.
Michigan then will find itself in familiar conference company — squaring off against Ohio State for a sixth time. The Buckeyes made a takedown of Denver look easy in the Midwest Regional, and shouldn’t have too much trouble doing the same with Minnesota-Duluth.
But once the Wolverines get there, they will fall short of a national title. It’s safe to say that Michigan wants to avenge its five losses thus far this season to Ohio State. And while that sentiment should not be underestimated, the Buckeyes are just too good, plain and simple. None of the Wolverines’ five losses to Ohio State, other than the Big Ten Tournament semifinal, were even particularly close. Thinking about capitalizing on a power play? The Buckeyes probably won’t let it happen. They run the best penalty kill in the nation, preventing goals over 89 percent of the time. And Michigan scored just once with a man-advantage when playing them.
In a season where no one but Michigan itself predicted that it would land a spot in St. Paul, the Wolverines will prove everyone wrong by making it to the final game of the year. But Ohio State will take it all.
Prediction: Who knows?
In the beginning of the year, if you’d asked anyone if the Wolverines would be in the Frozen Four, they would have told you off with good reason. In the second week in January, Michigan was swept by Notre Dame — a series no one expected the Wolverines to take.
The Fighting Irish boasted one of the better defenses in the country with the nation’s best goaltender. After 2-1 losses both nights, many commended Michigan for its fortitude in a powerhouse matchup. But that commemoration was representative of an underlying storyline at play. The truth was that, after the Notre Dame defeats, no one expected the Wolverines to get over the hump of securing victories against the nation’s best.
That all changed the next weekend.
Michigan went on a four-game win-streak against top-15 teams in Minnesota and Penn State. It didn’t look back.
A newly diversified attacking arm consisting of veteran offensive performers such as junior Cooper Marody and senior Tony Calderone supplemented by the likes of sophomore Jake Slaker, freshman Jack Becker and others now defined the squad poised for a postseason run. But they’ll certainly face a challenge with the battle-tested Fighting Irish defense headed by Jordan Gross and Cale Morris.
One thing is for sure, though, Notre Dame seems to be playing the same hockey now that it was at the beginning of the season — steady defense with slow, calculated offensive pressure. On the other hand, Michigan is clearly playing with more confidence and it has shown in its impressive, unpredicted postseason performance. With Calderone and Marody at the reins with supplementary bombardment from the Wolverines’ depth, Morris won’t be able to stop the Michigan offensive train unless he conjures up Brodeur-esque style.
In the other matchup — Ohio State against Minnesota-Duluth — both teams happen to be quite similar. Both have outstanding power plays. Both are defined by a stalwart back line. And much like the media has hinted at for the past week and a half, the Wolverines will meet the Buckeyes in the national championship to duke it out for the sixth time this season.
Just like the first six matchups, though, Ohio State’s penalty kill paired with its deadly offense headlined by Tanner Laczynski and Mason Jobst could be too much. But Michigan has since built a reputation as a fast, scrappy team since the two’s last faceoff in the Big Ten semifinal.
My guess, it’s up for grabs.