The Gopher Hockey team will look to get back to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2014 this weekend. The Gophers are the #1 seed in the Northeast Regional in Manchester, New Hampshire. Minnesota will start its quest against the #4 seed, Notre Dame at 2:30 PM on Saturday. UMass-Lowell and Cornell will get play started at 11:00 AM on Saturday.
Minnesota will look to fair better in Manchester then they did two seasons ago. In 2015 the Gophers were the #3 seed in Manchester and lost to #2 seed UMD 4-1. Last season the Gophers missed the NCAA Tournament even after winning the Big Ten regular season championship. As senior captain Justin Kloos said in the Gophers per-tournament press conference on Friday, “ We’ve spent 52 weeks getting ready for this opportunity.”
Minnesota has now qualified for the NCAA Tournament a record 37 times —the most of any school. They are 55-37 (.598) all-time in the tournament. Meanwhile, their first round opponent, Notre dame is 6-8 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota defeated the Irish 5-2 in 2004 in the first round of the Midwest Regional in Grand Rapids, MI in the two teams only match-up in the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers have a 27-15-3 edge in the all-time series against Notre Dame. Last season the two teams split a series in South Bend in October. With the NCAA pairing this season, it will mark the sixth consecutive season that the Gophers and Irish will have played one another. This streak will continue indefinitely as Notre Dame will become a member of the Big Ten Hockey Conference next season.
Minnesota enters the NCAA Tournament off a 4-3 double overtime loss to eventual Big Ten Champion Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament Semifinals. Gopher goalie Eric Schierhorn set a new career high in saves with 59 in the loss to the Nittany Lions. The Big Ten Goalie of the Year has been outstanding for Minnesota in March. He has a .945 save percentage and a 1.77 goals against average in the month. Minnesota will need those numbers to continue if they want to make a run at their sixth NCAA title.
Offensively, Minnesota is led by Hobey Baker Finalist Tyler Sheehy. The sophomore led the Big Ten and is 8th nationally with 53 points on the year. The Big Ten Player of the Year has set career highs in points, goals and assists this season. Kloos is another big scoring threat for the Gophers. His six game-winning goals this season are tied for tops in the NCAA. If he can tally a point this weekend, its usually good news for Minnesota—The Gophers are 68-18-9 all-time when Kloos records a point. On the blue line, Minnesota is anchored by senior Jake Bischoff. The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year has tallied a career high in points, assists ,and blocks this season. His 32 points leads all Big Ten defensemen, and he is tied for 7th in the country in points by a defensemen. His 82 blocks on the season rank 8th in the country. Meanwhile, Gopher freshman Rem Pitlick is getting hot at the right time. He enters the NCAA Tournament with a six game point streak. His 32 points as a freshmen are the most by a first year player since Kyle Rau in 2011-12. However, the leading point scorer against Notre Dame for Minnesota has been Taylor Cammarata. The senior has nine points in six career games against the Irish. Kloos has six points in six games, and Leon Bristedt leads all Gopher scorers with four career goals against Notre Dame in four games.
Notre Dame enters the NCAA Tournament after a conference semifinal loss to the eventual champion as well. The Irish lost 5-1 to UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East Tournament Semifinal. Notre Dame is also led by an ironman goalie. Senior Cal Peterson has played in 87 consecutive games for Notre Dame—the 4th longest streak in NCAA History. (Schierhorn’s current streak ranks 11th all-time). Peterson was named one of the five finalists for the Mike Richter award this past week—given out to college hockey’s top goalie. Peterson has put up impressive numbers this season—a .928 save percentage and a 2.14 goals against average. He has not faired nearly as well against the Gophers in his career. In four games against Minnesota, Peterson has a 1-3 record with a goals against average of 4.25 and a save percentage of just .875. Minnesota will hope that trend continues.
The Irish are led on offense by Anders Bjork. Another of the top ten Hobey Baker Finalists, Bjork has 19 goals and 47 points to lead Notre Dame. In four games against Minnesota he is the leading scorer with four points. MInnesota will do its best to shut him down as Notre Dame is just 1-6-3 this season when Bjork does not record a point, but the Irish are 10-3 when he records a goal. Sophomore forward Andrew Oglevie is another big scorer for Notre Dame. He is second on the squad with 39 points, and is tied for the team lead with Bjork with 19 goals. Jake Evans is not far behind in third place with 38 points on the year for Notre Dame.
There are several keys to a Gopher victory. Minnesota will need to get off to a fast start. The Gophers are outscoring their opponents 42-28 in the first period this season, while the Irish have just one more goal than their opponents in the first period. Minnesota will absolutely need to avoid the second period swoon that has plagued the Gophers in the second half of the season. Notre Dame comes alive the later the game goes, and while the Gophers have three more goals then their opponents in the second period this season, the Irish are outscoring their opponents 43-28. If it is a close game, it could be one heck of a third period as both teams like to run and gun in the third. Minnesota outscores its opponents 49-29 in the third, and the Irish are even better with a 50-27 edge.
Minnesota will need to take advantage of all their power-play options. The Gophers have the fifth best power play in the country at 25.32%, while the Irish are 34th at 17.75%. But, Notre dame has been better on the penalty kill than Minnesota, coming in at 12th in the country with a 85.3% kill rate, while the Gophers are 34th with an 81.9% kill rate. The game will probably hinge on 5x5 play as neither team takes a ton of penalties.
Its the NCAA Tournament, and as recent years have shown--anything can happen. More #4 seeds have made the Frozen Four then #1 seeds in recent years. Notre Dame will not be an easy game for the Gophers, but if they play up to their potential, their scoring punch should hopefully be enough to get past Peterson and advance the Gophers to the Regional Final on Sunday. As we always say, it will come down to the goalie play—and Schierhorn is playing as well as he has all season at the moment. All we can do is hope that will continue.
My prediction? Gophers will get past the Irish in a tight one 4-2 with a late empty net goal.
The winner of the Minnesota/Notre Dame game will take on the winner of UMass-Lowell and Cornell on Sunday at 2:30. If the Gophers advance we will have a preview of that game up late Saturday night or early Sunday morning.
NCAA NORTHEAST REGIONAL
SHNU Arena, Manchester, New Hampshire
#2 UMass-Lowell Riverhawks vs #3 Cornell Big Red
When: 11:00 AM Saturday
When: 2:30 PM Saturday
Radio: 1500 ESPN