SOUTH BEND — The odds were great Saturday night before Notre Dame concluded the Big Ten hockey regular season at the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena that the Irish would start the league postseason tournament away from home.
All the 2-2 overtime tie and penalty-shot shootout victory over Michigan State did for Jeff Jackson’s Irish was change their mode of transportation.
Instead of a Thursday bus trip to either Michigan or Ohio State, fifth-seed Notre Dame (14-13-7) will board a charter jet Thursday to travel to fourth-seed Minnesota (14-13-7) to begin a best-of-three series Friday night at 8 EST. The second game Saturday night also is at 8, and if a third is necessary, it will be played Sunday at 7. The series winner advances to a one-game semifinal Saturday, March 14, also likely on the road.
In their two seasons in the Big Ten, the Irish have finished first and second in the regular season and then won the postseason tournament title twice on home ice, both on goals by Cam Morrison. Prior to this season, the Irish were picked to finish second to Penn State, got off to a 7-0-1 start but then struggled at the end of the first semester.
“It’s been one of those odd years — we go up and down and all around,” Jackson said. “Through it all, I am proud of this group.”
With Michigan State looking at a weekend sweep while leading 2-0 Saturday with just under five minutes remaining, Alex Steeves and Morrison scored late goals within 1:45 of each other beginning at 15:12 and later Tory Dello scored on a penalty shot to give the Irish two points to finish with 37 in the Big Ten, one point behind Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota and four behind regular-season champion Penn State. Michigan State ended its season with 35 points.
In the last meetings between them, the Gophers earned five of six points with a 3-3 tie and 2-1 victory from the Irish Feb. 14-15 at the Smith Rink where the Irish finished 4-6-2 in Big Ten play. Notre Dame fared better on the road, going 5-3-4, including 1-0-1 in Minneapolis Nov. 1-2, 1-0-1 at Penn State Jan. 31-Feb. 1 and 2-0-0 at Michigan Feb. 21-22.
“We have a set schedule and set routine,” added Jackson, noting there are no classes to attend on Fridays and other campus distractions. “They’re just more focused.”
The other first-round series beginning Friday night have No. 7-seed Wisconsin at No. 2 Ohio State and No. 6 Michigan State visiting No. 3 Michigan. Regular-season champion Penn State, idle last weekend, received a first-round bye and will host the lowest remaining seed March 14 with the other two winners meeting at the highest seed in single-game semifinals. A single championship game will be played March 21.