Notre Dame hockey team draws familiar foe in NCAAs

Steve Lowe
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Compared to last year, there was little drama heading into this Selection Sunday.

In 2013, Notre Dame had just bused back home from Joe Louis Arena, the CCHA's Mason Cup in tow, and found out it had earned a No. 1 seed and a matchup with St. Cloud State.

This year, though, the Irish pretty much knew there was no top seed in their NCAA fate Friday night, following their 4-0 loss to UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals in Boston.

But once again, that fate is intertwined with St. Cloud State, No. 2 seed Notre Dame’s first-round opponent again at 9 p.m. on Saturday at the West Regional in St. Paul, Minn. That game will follow the first game of the day between Minnesota, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, and Robert Morris.

The team gathered in the interview room at the Compton Family Ice Arena on Sunday to watch the pairings, and didn't have to wait long to find out where they were headed. As the West bracket was revealed, a cheer went up from the group when the St. Cloud rematch was confirmed.

When they faced off last season, the Irish were still riding high off winning their third CCHA tournament title, but ran into a Huskies buzzsaw that chewed them up in a 5-1 loss. St. Cloud eventually advanced to the Frozen Four.

"I thought we just played flat, we didn't have the energy or the legs that we needed against a fast, high-tempo Cloud team," said ND captain Jeff Costello. "I think it's going to be different this year because more than half the team played these guys last year and they embarrassed us on national TV."

Perhaps the most important factor for the Irish this year will be heading into the NCAA tournament on a down note rather than after hoisting a trophy. In the three seasons Notre Dame won the CCHA and entered the national tournament as a No. 1 seed, it has failed to advance past the regional.

"I don't know if it's the emotion (of winning the conference tournament) that gets taken out of you, but I don't think we were as sharp," Irish coach Jeff Jackson said about last year's loss to St. Cloud. "This year, we're coming off a loss, which will maybe make our guys better."

For the second year in a row, St. Cloud boasts a Hobey Baker award finalist. After Drew LeBlanc won it last year, Nic Dowd, a Culver Military Academy alum and L.A. Kings prospect, made the cut to the final 10, though this year's award seems to be a cinch for Boston College star Johnny Gaudreau.

Dowd has 21 goals and 18 assists for 39 points, tied for the team lead with Jonny Brodzinski (20-19--39). Brodzinski scored against the Irish last year, and the Huskies stifled ND's offense, allowing just eight total shots on goal over the final two periods.

St. Cloud is similar in many ways to the team Notre Dame just finished playing. The Irish struggled in three games with UMass-Lowell this season, managing to score just one goal. Like Lowell, St. Cloud State is a deep team that's not littered with superstars, but can roll out at least three strong lines, along with excellent goaltending from Ryan Faragher.

"Hopefully, we learned a little bit of a lesson from last year, although this past weekend reminded me of last year against St. Cloud," Jackson said. "Maybe we got that out of the way in the conference tournament, and hopefully we'll be better prepared to play St. Cloud, which is a team that's not that dissimilar to UMass-Lowell."

If the Irish manage to solve St. Cloud this time, their likely opponent in the regional final on Sunday would be Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are expected to dispatch Robert Morris in the semis, and they'll be playing in front of a home crowd in St. Paul. With potentially two games against Minnesota-based teams, the Irish are adopting the underdog approach.

"I think that's a great approach for us, the way we play," Costello said. "It gives us the extra jump we need.

"When people don't think we have a shot, that's when we play the best. When we get a little too cocky and our heads get a little big, that's when things like Friday night or last year against St. Cloud happen."

Notre Dame hosted the Gophers for a pair of games back in November, winning the first, 4-1, before dropping the second, 4-3. Another meeting with Minnesota, which is loaded with talent and likes to play fast and wide-open, plays more into Notre Dame's favor, but the Irish will have to figure out how to break through against the Huskies, first.

"Their team's not much different than it was last year, and frankly, neither is ours," Jackson said. "From a more important perspective, I think we have a better feel for how they play the game than we did a year ago."

Notre Dame captain Jeff Costello, left, believes the Irish will have payback on their mind in NCAA tourney play.  SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN