Last weekend, the Michigan hockey team was able to go to the Big Ten Tournament without worrying about its season ending — the Wolverines had already secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
With the conference tournament over, Michigan (12-5-3 Big Ten, 24-7-5 overall) moves on to the NCAA Tournament, where the situation is a little more desperate: Either win or go home.
The seventh-ranked Wolverines head to Cincinnati to face No. 12 Notre Dame (15-5-2 Hockey East, 19-10-7) on Friday night. And if last weekend’s Big Ten Tournament win was an indication of anything, Michigan is ready to go.
The Wolverines demolished Penn State for the third straight game, winning 7-2 behind freshman forward Kyle Connor’s four goals. The team followed the thrashing with a 5-3 win over Minnesota the next night to win the title.
“The past few years, it seemed to come down to whether we won our conference championship if we got into the tournament,” Michigan coach Red Berenson told reporters Thursday in Cincinnati. “Even though we did win our conference championship, our team earned their way into this tournament (before that).”
Notre Dame is the second Hockey East opponent that Michigan has played this season — the first was Boston University back in November, when the Wolverines split a two-game series in Boston.
The Fighting Irish will head to Cincinnati after not playing this past weekend. They were knocked out of the Hockey East playoffs by No. 13 Northeastern, who is on the other side of the NCAA regional bracket.
But Notre Dame forward Thomas DiPauli sees that as a blessing in disguise.
“The week off was good for us. It let us get our heads straight,” DiPauli said Wednesday in Cincinnati. “We could focus on fixing a few of the little things. I think we are ready for tomorrow’s game. The pace is definitely going to be fast, and that’s a part of our game that we have been focusing on.”
The Wolverines’ offensive output leads the nation. Yet, the Fighting Irish are not far behind at No. 15 and are led by forward Anders Bjork and Jake Evans, who have both tallied 33 points this season.
Notre Dame’s defense is driven by goaltender Cal Peterson, who boasts a .928 save percentage, good enough for 13th in the nation. Peterson will be tasked with stopping Michigan’s first line of junior forward Tyler Motte, JT Compher and freshman forward Kyle Connor.
“Definitely playing against the highest-scoring team in the country is going to be a challenge for our whole team,” Petersen said. “But I think we prepared ourselves and our defensive structure, and I think that will translate well into tomorrow’s game.”
The Fighting Irish are led by coach Jeff Jackson, who has coached Notre Dame to six NCAA Tournaments and two Frozen Four appearances. In 2008, Jackson led the Fighting Irish to a 5-4 overtime win over Berenson and the Wolverines to make the title game.
“Jeff’s a real good coach,” Berenson said. “He put Notre Dame on an even keel, and he’s done a good job there.”
The winner of the two athletic powerhouses will take on the victor of North Dakota and Northeastern.
North Dakota is led in scoring by its top line, forwards Brock Boeser, Drake Caggiula and Nick Schmaltz. Earlier this season, Fighting Hawks goaltender Cam Johnson earned the second longest shutout streak in NCAA history by not allowing a goal in over 298 minutes of play.
Northeastern comes into the tournament hot and has lost only once in its past 23 games — a remarkable feat given that its record going into 2016 was 3-12-3. The Huskies are led in scoring by forward Zach Aston-Reese, who has 14 goals and 29 assists to date.
Before Michigan has the opportunity to face the Fighting Hawks or the Huskies, however, it must get past Notre Dame, a team the Wolverines haven’t played since the last CCHA Tournament title game in 2013.
But Wednesday, the Fighting Irish announced they would be leaving the Hockey East for the Big Ten for the 2017-18 season.
“I think Notre Dame is a perfect fit: academically, they’re in our geographic footprint, competitiveness and they have a great facility and program,” Berenson said. “I think it’s a win-win situation for the Big Ten and Notre Dame.”
So while the teams haven’t seen each other in three years, they will be seeing a lot of each other in the near future.
They might as well start getting acquainted with one another now.