It all started with Notre Dame.
According to Mel Pearson, the first time the the Michigan hockey team’s spark really ignited was the first weekend in January — the weekend of its first series against the then top-ranked Fighting Irish.
On paper, it may not have looked like much. The Wolverines lost both of those games, 2-1. But the headlines that read a Fighting Irish “sweep” didn’t necessarily tell the full story of the weekend. Michigan knew it had still done something big.
“You know, Notre Dame had been one or two all year,” Pearson said Wednesday at a press conference in St. Paul, Minn. “And I think that series, you saw some things that our coaches, okay, maybe we have a chance. If we play like we did this weekend, we got a chance to win every game we play.”
That message clearly seemed to stick. The Wolverines went on to win 10 of their remaining 14 regular season games throughout January and February. That included sweeps of then-No. 9 Minnesota, then-No. 12 Penn State, and the largest of them all — a 4-2, 1-0 sweep of the still-No.1 Fighting Irish.
It all started with Notre Dame, and for Michigan, the final destination it dreamed of — the Frozen Four — will see its growth come full circle. For the fifth time this season, the Wolverines (22-14-3) will face off against the Fighting Irish (27-9-2), this time at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on the biggest stage of the season.
Given the teams’ familiarity, they know the most threatening aspects of their opponents’ game.
For Notre Dame, look no further than the blueline. The Fighting Irish give up a miniscule 2.19 goals per game, which can be credited to the combination of a high-functioning defensive zone and absurd goaltending.
“I think their defensive zone is incredible,” said senior forward Tony Calderone. “They make it really hard for us to get to the middle of the ice. And as long as we can get there, sacrifice and get some shots on net, get some rebounds, I think we’ll be okay.”
Notre Dame’s goaltender — Cale Morris — is one of the most highly-acclaimed players in collegiate hockey. This season, the sophomore was recognized as Big Ten Player and Goaltender of the Year, a Hobey Baker Finalist and was named to the All-Big Ten First Team. Morris’ .945 save percentage has greatly helped the Fighting Irish, who don’t run a particularly flashy offense.
Almost in polarity, one of the Wolverines’ greatest strengths lies in the offense. Led by Calderone and his junior linemate Cooper Marody, the offensive unit averages 3.41 goals per game. When just looking at the postseason, this number spikes, as three out of four of Michigan’s wins after the regular season have seen six or more pucks in the net.
But again, these things should not come as a surprise to either team. And with the record split at 2-2, the outcome will likely come down to whether the Wolverines can successfully crack Notre Dame’s defense like they did during February’s series.
This familiarity is not generally a common sentiment this late in the season. Last year, not a single Big Ten team was in the Frozen Four. Now, three of the four teams left standing are members of the conference.
And Michigan was quick to acknowledge not only how big of a feat it is for the Big Ten to claim these spots, but how beneficial it has been to compete all season in a strong conference.
“I think it’s huge for the league,” Calderone said. “I have been here for four years. The Big Ten wasn’t nearly as good my first three. It’s been incredible seeing the improvement over the years.
“And I think it’s great for us, too, playing in the Big Ten because it’s prepared us. We’ve played these teams so many times and I think it’s great. It’s really exciting to see it move forward.”
Leaving the January series against Notre Dame, the Wolverines were under .500. It’s safe to say at that point, the Frozen Four, let alone the NCAA Tournament was nowhere in sight. But that weekend, Michigan was able to play up to the caliber of the Fighting Irish, which catalyzed a transition for the Wolverines. As the season moved forward, Michigan became a team that could hang with the best. Now, the Wolverines are one of the best.
“That weekend really showed us something,” Pearson said. “And we went into Minnesota and had a good weekend. Penn State came to Yost. We swept them. At that point, things started to come together.”
And Michigan will see Thursday if all the tweaks it has made over the past three months are enough to get past Notre Dame — just one more time.