SOUTH BEND — There was more than a victory and points on the line when Minnesota and Notre Dame renewed their Big Ten Conference rivalry Friday night at the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena.
Momentum, not only from week to week but literally from period to period, will be key for the six teams which have separated themselves from Wisconsin, which had 17 points and is deep in the cellar of the seven-school Big Ten.
“Schedule is everything and it just so happens we’re playing two of the hottest teams in the conference in the next two weeks,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said as his team prepared for its series with Bob Motzko’s Golden Gophers, who have won five of their last six games as the league’s hottest team.
Cal Theisen, Nick Leivermann and Cam Morrison scored Notre Dame goals to offset goals by Gophers first-linemates Scott Reedy, Blake McLaughlin and Sammy Walker as the teams skated into sudden-death overtime tied 3-3 before a sellout crowd of 4,854.
After an entertaining, scoreless five-minute overtime and a 3-on-3 shootout overtime during which Cale Morris denied Reedy on a penalty shot, the Gophers earned the third point of the night when Brannon McManus beat Morris on the first penalty shot and Notre Dame’s Tory Dello fired wide of Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine.
Morris finished with 31 saves while LaFontaine had 39. The two points put the Gophers (13-11-5, 8-6-5-4 Big Ten) into a first-place tie with Penn State (a 4-3 loser at Wisconsin) with 33 points, while the Irish (12-11-6, 7-7-5-3 Big Ten) fell behind Michigan into sixth place with 29 points.
“Playoff hockey basically — it was a good game,” Jackson said afterward. “My only disappointment was falling behind 2-0 and chasing the game. But we came back.”
Reedy and McLaughlin scored in the first 13 minutes for Minnesota, but Theisen made it 2-1 before the first-period intermission. Leivermann tied it at 8:04 of the second and Morrison’s power-play goal at 15:26 sent the Irish into the third period ahead 3-2. But Walker got the game-tying goal at 10:13. Walker, Reedy and McLaughlin have scored eight of Minnesota’s last nine goals.
Minnesota and Notre Dame conclude their series tonight (Saturday) at 6 p.m. in an “Irish Wear Green” game that will benefit the 525 Foundation for opioid misuse and abuse. Fans can drop off unused and old prescription drugs and bid for special game-worn Irish white jerseys outlined in green in an online auction.
Next weekend, the Irish travel to Michigan, which is 5-1-1 in its last seven after its 5-1 victory Friday at Michigan State. The Wolverines had 3-0 and 3-1 victories at Notre Dame Jan. 10-11. The Irish then conclude the regular season Feb. 28-29 at the Smith Rink against Michigan State.
Entering Friday’s contest, the Irish were 2-2-2 for 10 points in their last six games, with a 4-4 overtime tie (and penalty-shot point) and 4-2 victory at Penn State Jan. 31-Feb. 1. Jackson called it his team’s best effort since a 7-0-1 start in a season that has become 5-11-5 since. But Notre Dame has found its scoring touch with 20 goals in its last five games.
As the Big Ten regular-season race entered its final three weekends, the top six teams were separated by six points. After Friday, that deficit was down to four with Minnesota and Penn State at 33 points, Michigan State and Ohio State at 31, Michigan with 30 and Notre Dame with 29.
Because the conference has an odd number of teams, not all of them have played the same number of games. The Irish, Gophers, Spartans and Wolverines each have five games remaining, two more than the Nittany Lions and Badgers. The Buckeyes, who are off this weekend, have four games left.
Wisconsin has the league bye next weekend (the Badgers have a non-conference home series with Arizona State) and Penn State is off Feb. 28-29.
The best-of-3 first round of the Big Ten Tournament is March 6-8. The league regular-season champion receives a first-round bye while the teams finishing second through fourth will host best-of-3 series against teams finishing seventh through fifth (2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, 4 vs. 5). The semifinals (March 14) and championship (March 21) are one-game matchups.
The competitive nature of the Big Ten this season could end up hurting the league when the 16 teams of the NCAA tournament are announced Sunday, March 22. Currently, only Penn State (No. 8) and Ohio State (No. 15) are inside the top 16 teams in the USCHO.com’s PairWise Rankings that closely mimic the NCAA selection committee’s criteria. Michigan State and Minnesota were tied for 19th with Northern Michigan and Notre Dame was 22nd.
Two seasons ago, the Big Ten was the envy of college hockey with Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State reaching the Frozen Four in Saint Paul only to have Minnesota-Duluth of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference beat the Irish 2-1 for the first of two straight NCAA titles.
Last season, the Irish finished second but won the Big Ten Tournament for the second straight season to earn a bid to their fourth straight NCAA tournament but were eliminated by Massachusetts in the second round.
NOTRE DAME 3, MINNESOTA 3 (OT)
At Lefty Smith Rink, South Bend
First Period—Scoring: 1. Minnesota, Scott Reedy 15 (Blake McLaughlin, Sammy Walker) EV 0:28. 2. Minnesota, Blake McLaughlin 7 (Sammy Walker, Scott Reedy) EV 13:00. 3. Notre Dame, Colin Theisen 7 (Mike O’Leary, Tory Dello) EV 14:36. Penalties: Minnesota 1-2, Notre Dame 0-0.
Second Period—Scoring: 4. Notre Dame, Nick Leivermann 4 (Cam Burke, Matt Hellickson) EV 3:04. 5. Notre Dame, Cam Morrison 8 (Cal Burke, Spencer Stastney) PP 15:26. Penalties (total): Minnesota 2-4 (3-6), Notre Dame 3-6 (3-6).
Third Period—Scoring: 6. Minnesota, Sammy Walker 10 (Garrett Wait, Matt Staudacher) EV 10:13. Penalties (total): Minnesota 0-0 (3-6), Notre Dame 2-4 (5-10).
Overtime—Scoring: None. Penalties (total): Minnesota 0-0 (3-6), Notre Dame 0-0 (5-10).
Power-play opportunities—Minnesota 0 of 4, Notre Dame 1 of 2.
Faceoffs won—Minnesota 27 (12-4-8-3), Notre Dame 30 (13-10-5-2).
Blocked shots—Minnesota 12 (6-5-1-0), Notre Dame 26 (9-5-11-1).
Shots on goal—Minnesota 34 (11-10-11-2), Notre Dame 42 (19-9-12-2).
Goalie saves—Minnesota, Jack LaFontaine 39 (18-7-12-2), Notre Dame, Cale Morris 29 (9-10-10-2).
Records—Minnesota 13-11-5 (8-6-5-4 Big Ten), Notre Dame 12-11-6 (7-7-5-3 Big Ten).