Notre Dame, Michigan bring their hockey rivalry to the grand stage

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SAINT PAUL, Minn. – In the case of the hockey programs of Notre Dame and Michigan, familiarity breeds not contempt but much respect.

For the fifth time this season, the Irish and Wolverines, together again as Big Ten Conference mates, will meet tonight at 9:30 EDT on the Xcel Energy Center ice with something more on the line — a trip to the championship game of the men’s NCAA Division I Frozen Four.

College hockey’s two hottest teams — No. 14 Michigan (22-14-3) has won nine of its last 10 while No. 1 Notre Dame (27-9-2) has won four in a row, two in the last minute of regulation and two more in overtime — will play the deciding game of what will be a best-of-five season series.

The winner will meet either Big Ten brethren Ohio State (26-9-5) or 2011 NCAA champ Minnesota Duluth (23-16-3), a former rival of Notre Dame and Michigan back in the 1970s in the old Western Collegiate Hockey Association, in Saturday’s championship at 7:30 EDT.

In splitting four games this season, one goal has separated the Wolverines and Irish — Michigan scored seven, Notre Dame scored six.

One goal.

Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson is not fooled, however.

“Michigan has been one of the best offensive teams in the country in the second half,” Jackson said. “They’re as good a team as there is left playing. We’ll more than have our hands full.”

The Irish swept a home-and-home series on the first weekend of January by 2-1 scores but then dropped a 4-2 decision at home on Feb. 16 in South Bend before being blanked 1-0 in Ann Arbor during a very successful first season as an affiliate member of the Big Ten. Notre Dame won both the regular season and tournament titles under Jackson, who is in his fourth Frozen Four with the Irish and who guided Lake Superior State to two national titles in the 1990s.

Michigan, under first-year head coach Mel Pearson, a long-time assistant to Red Berenson, has merely been the hottest team since being swept by Notre Dame, going 14-4-1. Pearson played in a Frozen Four for Michigan Tech and assisted Berenson in 11 of Michigan’s 25 total Frozen Four finishes. The Wolverines won titles in 1996 and 1998.

“I think games like this just add to the rivalry,” Pearson said. “It will take a little bit of time, but I think five years from now it’s going to be a great rivalry.”

It would not surprise anyone if one goal decides this fifth meeting between teams that are remarkably similar in goal with sophomore netminders — Notre Dame’s Cale Morris, a finalist for the Mike Richter Award with his 1.91 goals-against average and nation-leading .945 saves percentage, and Michigan’s Hayden Lavigne, who stopped 35 Irish shots for his third shutout during the season.

“Cale has done an unbelievable job and really helped lead this team,” said senior captain Jake Evans, who leads the Irish in assists (31) and points (42).

Both teams feature shot-blocking defenders — Notre Dame’s Dennis Gilbert (85), Andrew Peeke (60) and Jordan Gross (43); Michigan’s Luke Martin (66), Sam Piazza (61) and Joe Cecconi (55).

Offensively, the Wolverines have averaged 3.4 goals per game, with senior right wing Tony Calderone scoring 24 and junior center Cooper Marody adding 16. Notre Dame, averaging a half-goal less per game, is led by junior center Andrew Oglevie and sophomore right wing Cal Burke with 13 each.

“We can play any team right now,” said Cecconi, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior who pairs with 5-10, 175-pound exciting newcomer Quinn Hughes. “Whoever comes in our path is going to be moved out of the way, I think.”

Notre Dame begs to differ in this rubber match.

One game – the winner stays, the loser goes home.

COLLEGE HOCKEY

WHAT: NCAA Frozen Four

WHO: Michigan Wolverines (22-14-3) vs. Notre Dame (27-9-2).

WHEN: Thursday at 9:30 p.m. EDT.

WHERE: Xcel Energy Center (18,568), Saint Paul, Minn.

TV: ESPN2.

Radio: WZOC-FM (94.3).

ICE CHIPS: Winner plays the winner of first semifinal at 6 p.m. between Ohio State (26-9-5) and Minnesota Duluth (23-16-3) on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN. … The teams split four Big Ten games (see box) this season. … Overall, Michigan leads the series – 76-58-5 (according to Notre Dame) or 77-56-5 (according to Michigan). … This is Notre Dame’s fourth Frozen Four appearance; the Irish have not won a national championship. … Michigan is in its 25th Frozen Four and has won eight titles, the last a 3-2 overtime victory in 1998 over Boston College.

RECAP: Notre Dame and Michigan met four times this season in Big Ten Hockey Conference play, each winning twice. In the four games, Michigan outscored Notre Dame 7-6.

Notre Dame 2, Michigan 1 (Jan. 5 at Ann Arbor): Matt Hellickson and Andrew Oglevie scored power-play goals in the first 9:55 of the first period before Tony Calderone scored at 15:52. Cale Morris made 35 saves, 10 more than Michigan’s Hayden Lavigne.

Notre Dame 2, Michigan 1 (Jan. 7 at South Bend): After a scoreless first period, Oglevie and Hellickson scored goals in the first 13:51 of the second period. Josh Norris scored at 8:44 of the third for Michigan. Lavigne had 34 saves, one more than Morris.

Michigan 4, Notre Dame 2 (Feb. 16 at South Bend): The Wolverines jumped to a 2-0 first-period lead and never trailed. Adam Winborg, Dexter Dancs, Calderone and Michael Pastujov scored for Michigan, while Joe Wegwerth and Bobby Nardella tallied for Notre Dame. Lavigne made 34 saves, two more than Morris.

Michigan 1, Notre Dame 0 (Feb. 18 at Ann Arbor): Calderone’s goal, off an assist from Cooper Marody, at 19:21 of the second period stood up as the Wolverines blocked 25 Irish shots before they got to Lavigne, who made 35 saves, one less than Morris.

Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson, third from right, directs his players during NCAA college hockey practice, Wednesday in St. Paul. Minn. Notre Dame faces Michigan on Thursday in the national semifinals of the Frozen Four tournament. (AP Photo/ANTHONY SOUFFLE)