Notre Dame hockey draws Michigan in NCAA Tournament

Steve Lowe Tribune Correspondent
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Not only is Notre Dame is back in the NCAA hockey tournament, but the Irish will face a familiar old rival.

After missing the tournament last year, the Irish will be the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional, facing 2nd-seed Michigan at 5:30 p.m. on Friday in Cincinnati. North Dakota is the top seed in the Midwest and will take on the hottest team in the country, Northeastern, in the 2 p.m. game beforehand.

"This is a second life, a second opportunity to prove ourselves," Irish coach Jeff Jackson said on Sunday after the team watched the NCAA selection show on ESPNU. "It's a new season."

The first challenge of this new season facing the Irish (19-10-7) is impressive. Michigan (24-7-5) leads the country in scoring at 4.89 goals per game, and boasts the most feared line in college hockey, the "CCM" line of Kyle Connor, T.J. Compher and Chicago Blackhawks prospect Tyler Motte.

"As usual, they're a full-throttle offensive juggernaut," Jackson said.

Connor is a top contender for the Hobey Baker award after leading the country with 35 goals and 69 points in 36 games, trailed closely by Compher with 60 points. Motte is second with 31 goals, behind only Connor in that category, and is fourth in points with 54.

"They're a pretty dynamic line," said Irish captain Steven Fogarty. "As long as we can contain them, I think we'll be fine."

Michigan's 31.8 percent power play is also tops in the nation, but one weak spot for the Wolverines is at the other end of the ice, where they allow three goals per game and struggle on the penalty kill (79.8 percent). A big key for Notre Dame will be working hard away from the puck, especially when Michigan's top line is on the ice.

"We have to play with that passion without the puck," Jackson said. "It leads to possession and taking advantage of your own team speed in transition."

It's been three years since Notre Dame last faced the Wolverines. That last matchup came in the final CCHA tournament title game before the league disbanded. Michigan went off to the newly formed Big Ten conference, while the Irish found a home in Hockey East, pausing what had become in the last decade a hotly contested series.

The Irish will try to move past a difficult finish to this season, when they went 1-5 down the stretch. That included a sweep at home in the Hockey East tournament by Northeastern, which went on to win the tournament title Saturday night to earn its NCAA bid, and has won 13 straight games.

"We ran into a really good team at the end there," Jackson said. "Northeastern has proven that they're not a fluke."

The fourth-seed Huskies are a legitimate threat to talented top seed North Dakota (36-4) in the early game on Friday in Cincinnati, and could very well be waiting for the winner of ND and UM.

But the only thing that matters now for the Irish is Michigan, just like it used to be.

"If we bear down and execute our system, we're just as good as any team in the country," said senior forward Sam Herr. "All 16 teams are good enough to win the tournament.

"Guys can get hot at the right time, goalies can steal this tournament, as well. As long as we execute our system, we'll be looking good."

Notre Dame’s Cal Petersen handles the puck while Northeastern’s Nolan Stevens chases him down Thursday, November 12, 2015, during the Northeastern-Notre Dame hockey game at Compton Family Ice Arena. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ