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Notre Dame looks to grind its way to Big Ten hockey championship

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — They are the players who do the dirty work and get very little recognition for doing it. Every championship hockey team has them in abundance.

Grinders.

Many of college hockey’s best will be on display Saturday night as No. 3 Notre Dame (24-9-2) attempts to complete a sweep of titles in its inaugural Big Ten season when it hosts No. 5 Ohio State (24-8-5). The Big Ten’s playoff championship and automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament is at stake on the same Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena where 36 days ago the Irish earned the regular-season title with a 2-1 victory over the Buckeyes.

“You don’t win without those kind of players,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said of the unsung lot.

Last Saturday night, it was a grinder — 5-foot-11, 192-pound right wing Jack Jenkins — who jumped on the ice during a line change in the final minute and scored the game-winner with 30.5 seconds remaining to give Notre Dame a 3-2 semifinal victory over Penn State.

Jackson sent Jenkins out because he felt the junior from Lake Bluff, Ill., was “buzzing” and wanted him out there to be joined by left wing Cam Morrison and All-Big Ten first-team forward Jake Evans to finish the third period in a game that looked headed for overtime.

“It was good to see Jack score the goal on Saturday,” Jackson said. “It’s nice to see those guys get rewarded for really battling and not complaining. They just do their job every day.”

Jenkins normally plays on a third line with two other grinders — sophomore center Mike O’Leary (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) and senior left wing Dawson Cook (6-2, 215). Then there’s fourth-line wing mates Bo Brauer (6-3, 210) and Joe Wegwerth (6-3, 225) — “The Big Lads” as Jackson calls them. They are part of the “Donut Line” because they have no true center as Jackson has spent most of the season rotating seven talented defensemen while employing 11 forwards rather than the normal 12.

When junior All-America center Anders Bjork took his talents to the Boston Bruins after last year’s run to the Frozen Four, Jackson knew the Irish would have to depend on scoring by committee.

Notre Dame’s grinding quintet has done its share — Cook has six goals, Wegwerth five, Brauer four and Jenkins and O’Leary three each — totaling 21 goals or 20.4 percent of Notre Dame’s season output.

O’Leary and Jenkins are among Notre Dame’s penalty-killing forwards. Jackson generally places the O’Leary line against the opposition’s top lines. “The Big Lads” like to throw their bodies around in the offensive zone.

“I really enjoy my role playing a hard, down-low game, trying to play big in the corners and hitting guys,” said Brauer, whose four goals, ironically, have all come against Penn State this season. “We like to create momentum shifts. We believe we can change the momentum of games.”

Andrew Oglevie, a junior center more noted for his scoring, appreciates the energy.

“Bo has been a big factor in the (locker) room; he brings positive energy and the guys feed off him,” he said.

Brauer has formidable bloodlines — father Bill played hockey for Michigan and was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, and his mother, Julie, was a national paddleball champion. Brauer also is a collegiate fisherman of note. He and former Notre Dame football player Josh Anderson finished 17th out of 85 teams in the FLW Collegiate Bass Fishing Tournament last summer in Wisconsin on the Mississippi River.

On quiet mornings when it isn’t too cold, Brauer and Cook might be found casting a few lines into Saint Mary’s Lake.

“It’s a good way to get your mind off things,” Brauer said. “When the weather warms up, I’m usually down there two-three times a week.”

In the meantime, he and Notre Dame’s other grinders are angling for another Big Ten trophy.

Ice chips

Ohio State enters the game 11th in scoring (3.22 goals per game), fourth in scoring defense (2.08), seventh in scoring margin (1.14), seventh in power-play percentage (24.3) and first in penalty-kill percentage (89.9). … Notre Dame is 26th in scoring (2.94), eighth in scoring defense (2.17), 10th in scoring margin (0.77), 17th in power-play percentage (21.8) and second in penalty-kill percentage (88.5). … Hobey Baker finalist Cale Morris, a sophomore goalie for Notre Dame, leads the nation in save percentage at .946, is fourth in winning percentage (.758 on 23-7-1 record) and eighth in goals-against average at 1.93. … His Ohio State counterpart, redshirt junior Sean Romeo, is 10th in save percentage (.926), ninth in winning percentage (.682 on a 20-8-5 record), and 11th in goals-against average (2.07) … Sophomore forward Tanner Laczynski leads the Buckeyes with 27 assists and junior forward Mason Jobst has a team-high 19 goals … Senior Jake Evans paces the Irish with 27 assists and 38 points, while Cal Burke has 13 goals. … The NCAA announces its 16-tournament Sunday at noon on ESPNU.

BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP

WHO: No. 2-seed Ohio State (24-8-5) vs. No. 1-seed Notre Dame (24-9-2)

WHEN: Saturday at 8 p.m. EST.

WHERE: Compton Family Ice Arena (5,022)

TICKETS: Non-reserved standing-room tickets available.

TV: Big Ten Network.

RADIO: WZOC-FM (94.3).

RANKINGS: Notre Dame is No. 3 in the USCHO.com media and American Hockey Coaches Association/USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls. … Ohio State is No. 4 in the coaches’ poll and No. 5 in the media poll.