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Sports

Notre Dame faces Michigan for trip to championship

| Thursday, April 5, 2018

For the second year in a row and the fourth time in program history, Notre Dame will play in the Frozen Four semifinals for a chance to play for a national championship.

The top-seeded Irish (27-9-2, 17-6-1) will take on second-seeded conference-rival Michigan (22-14-3, 11-10-3) in the late semifinal game Thursday night at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. The game is scheduled to begin around 9:30 p.m. and will follow the other semifinal game between Ohio State and Minnesota-Duluth. Both semifinal games will be televised on ESPN2. The winners of the two games will play each other in the national championship game Saturday night on ESPN.

This year’s Frozen Four will have a heavy Big Ten presence, as three of the four remaining teams — Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State, also a No. 1 seed — are members of the conference. Notre Dame won both the conference regular-season and postseason championships in their first year as a member of the league.

Mackenzi Marinovich | The Observer

Irish freshman forward Collin Theisen wins control of the puck during Notre Dame’s 4-2 victory over Wisconsin on Jan. 19 at Purcell Pavilion.

Notre Dame is currently riding a four-game win streak, with all wins coming by a single goal. The streak dates back to the beginning of the Big Ten conference tournament, when the Irish defeated Penn State 3-2 in the semifinal on a goal by junior forward Jack Jenkins with 31 seconds left in regulation. On March 17, Notre Dame defeated Ohio State 3-2 in overtime to win the Big Ten championship game and clinch the conference’s automatic NCAA tournament bid. Sophomore forward Cam Morrison scored the game-winning goal in overtime.

In the NCAA tournament, Notre Dame won two extremely close games against Michigan Tech and Providence College to win the East Regional at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In the first game against Michigan Tech, Notre Dame needed an overtime goal from senior defenseman Jordan Gross to win 4-3 and advance to the second round, where they defeated Providence 2-1 with a goal from junior forward Dylan Malmquist with 27 seconds left in regulation. Notre Dame came back from early deficits in both games.

Notre Dame and Michigan have played each other four times this season. In a two-game home-and-home series back in early January, the Irish swept the Wolverines by identical 2-1 scores. In another two-game home-and-home series between the two in mid-February, Michigan won both games by 4-2 and 1-0 scores. It was the only time all year Notre Dame was swept in a two-game series.

On Tuesday, Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson was named the recipient of the 2018 Spencer Penrose Award, given annually to the best coach in Division l ice hockey. It is the second time Jackson has won the award after previously winning it in 2007 during his second year at Notre Dame.

Jackson said he knows the challenge Michigan will present to his team Thursday.

“They improved from the time we played them in early January to the time we saw them in February, and they’ve improved since then as well,” Jackson said. “It’s the sign of a team that’s gaining confidence. They took some time to adjust to a new coach, and I think they’ve gotten better and better. They play a real solid game defensively and they transition well, so they’re a pretty talented team top to bottom. [Michigan sophomore goaltender Hayden] Lavigne has played well, and I think that has solidified their team more than anything now that he’s at a high level. They don’t have any real deficiencies, they have a number of guys that are high-profile offensive players, especially their top line. They also have Quinn Hughes on defense. They have some really talented players.”

Jackson also talked about how important the physical play of senior defenseman Justin Wade and junior defenseman Dennis Gilbert has been to the team’s success.

“There’s no question they have had a huge impact on the success of our team all season, and I think that’s been magnified during the Big Ten and NCAA tournament,” Jackson said. “We rely on them to play a lot of quality minutes defensively, but I think Dennis especially has the ability to do more than that. They have the ability to keep the game really simple, but he’s a guy that jumps into the play and can do some things offensively, too. Justin is pretty much stay-at-home, but he’s as good of a stay-at-home as you can get in my opinion. Those two guys have been instrumental in our success. No question those guys have given us a physical element, especially Justin. He was unbelievable against Providence. The physical impact he had in that game set a tone for our team.”

Jackson also said he isn’t surprised that three Big Ten teams made the Frozen Four. He said it shows how strong the conference is getting.

“I think we expected it,” Jackson said. “I think everybody anticipated that it would be even better than it was last year. They got a couple of teams in last year. They didn’t get any teams in the Frozen Four but they had four teams make the NCAA tournament. You look at programs on the rise like Michigan, Michigan State was much improved this year, Ohio State has made great gains in their program, so did Penn State. You look at all of the programs, there aren’t any weak programs amongst them, and that says a lot about the quality of the programs. With a few coaching changes, now another one at Minnesota, any time there’s a coaching change — especially with the high quality coaches they bring in — the league only gets better and better. Of course it’s not just about the coaches, but the level of players that they recruit. I expect the conference is going to get more challenging than it currently is, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that they have three teams in the Frozen Four.”

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