Notre Dame prepares for championship matchup with Minnesota Duluth
Tobias Hoonhout | Friday, April 6, 2018
ST. PAUL, Minn. — While Minnesota Duluth may be playing in its second-straight national championship game, this time around, the Bulldogs have some thank-you cards in order.
That’s because the team they’re playing gave Duluth a chance to make the tournament.
There were a number of factors that played into the Bulldogs (24-16-3, 13-11-0 NCHC) getting an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament after falling to North Dakota in the conference’s third-place game, but there was none bigger than Notre Dame’s overtime victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten championship.
“I sat in the front of the bus, checked my phone here and there, looking at two games,” Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin said of the waiting game after Thursday’s Frozen Four win. “The Princeton and BU games, and those didn’t go our way. Someone brought up the fact that there was another opportunity, there was another scenario. I’m like, ‘Really? Okay. Good.’ … The way we got in was really an eye-opener for our guys because they knew it could have been done, and I think it gave them a second-life and, again, a new opportunity, and they’ve taken advantage of it.”
The Bulldogs have certainly made the most of their opportunities this season after losing seven seniors from last season and three underclassmen to the NHL — including four of the team’s top-five goal scorers, five defenseman that played a combined 563 games over their careers and starting goaltender Hunter Miska. But thanks to the emergence of a balanced offensive approach and a first-year starter in net — much like the Irish (28-9-2, 17-6-1 Big Ten) — Duluth has run the table this postseason to become the first team since 2008 to make consecutive national championships.
“I think when you’re fighting for your life there to get in the tournament, you’re kind of playing playoff hockey a couple weeks earlier than everyone else, and you just kind of get on a run and keep it going and figure out how to play tough, close games like that,” Bulldogs senior forward Jared Thomas said postgame Thursday. “ … The fact that we had to crawl and scratch our way from basically the bottom at the start of the season to where we are now, it’s been a heck of a run that we’ve put together and hopefully come out on Saturday and finish it off.”
For the Irish — also in their second-consecutive Frozen Four — there’s nothing but respect for the Bulldogs.
“I know how Scott coaches. I know how they play the game. They play the game the right way,” Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson said in a press conference Friday. “They play a fast game, they play transitionally, they have their depths. They’re spread out like we are as far as their offensive depth. But they’ve got some talented young defensemen and their goaltending is solidified, which probably helped push them over the top to get to this point.”
While Notre Dame has yet to face the Bulldogs this season, the two teams aren’t unfamiliar foes, having played each other early in the season last year and with another regular-season series scheduled for next season.
“Scott’s one heck of a coach. His staff has done a tremendous job. And we just like how they do things,” Jackson said. “Their athletic director is a former assistant athletic director from Notre Dame. Our hockey operations director is originally from Duluth, that’s where we got him from. So there’s ties in many ways to Minnesota Duluth and Notre Dame. But it’s just the respect factor. We have such respect for them as a program and their coach and their coaching staff.”
And as the Irish prepare to attempt to win the program’s first-ever national championship, last year’s experience at the game’s biggest stage has certainly helped the team along the way.
“From last year, you know, we came into it probably being a little more satisfied than we should have in that we were stunned beating UMass Lowell in overtime [to reach the Frozen Four],” Irish senior forward Bo Brauer said Friday. “I think not having as much experience under the bright lights last year hurt us. And taking that as motivation to get us back here has really helped us. And, again, being calm and just staying positive throughout, it has really helped us.”
Irish junior forward Dylan Malmquist echoed Brauer and said Notre Dame has stayed zeroed in throughout the tournament.
“I think focusing on us rather than focusing on everything else and putting all the distractions from the Frozen Four to the side and just focusing on what we have in the locker room,” Malmquist said. “Our team has been a big part of it.”