Notre Dame-Duluth hockey championship matchup is an ironic one

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SAINT PAUL, Minn. – For a couple of hours last St. Patrick’s Day, Minnesota Duluth hockey coach Scott Sandelin and his team were the biggest fans Notre Dame’s Irish had.

Three weeks ago, Duluth was on a bus ride home from the Xcel Energy Center, its NCAA tournament hopes looking bleak following a 4-1 loss to North Dakota in the consolation game of the National Collegiate Hockey Association playoff tournament.

The outcome of several games eventually decided Duluth’s fate, the last of which was Notre Dame’s 3-2 overtime win over Ohio State for the Big Ten playoff championship. When Cam Morrison fired home the game-winner for Notre Dame, the Bulldogs escaped a crowded doghouse that included North Dakota, Boston College and Minnesota and made the 16-team field.

Tonight, Duluth (24-16-3), winner of the 2011 championship here, is the last team standing between top-ranked Notre Dame (28-9-2) and its first NCAA championship ever. But if you think Duluth is going to step aside in tonight’s championship game at 7:30 EDT in a sold-out Xcel Energy Center and let it happen, well, fuhgeddaboudit.

“I actually have a buddy on (Notre Dame) – Dylan Malmquist,” Duluth sophomore defenseman Nick Wolff said. “I texted him ‘You saved us, thank you.’ He’s still a buddy, but when Saturday comes around, he’s not going to be.”

Sandelin, who joked earlier in the week that he owed Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson a couple of beers when the American Hockey Coaches Association meetings take place later this month in Naples, Fla., knows his team won’t have an easy time against the Irish.

“(They are) an older team that’s probably a little bit on a mission,” Sandelin said. “I think they learned something last year in the semifinal game (a 6-1 loss to Denver). They’ve been in a ton of one-goal games. They find ways to win. They don’t panic.”

The 62-year-old Jackson, seeking a third national title (he coached Lake Superior State to championships in the early 1990s) but first at Notre Dame, feels the same way about Duluth, a frequent regular-season foe since the Irish lost a 4-3 decision to Duluth in the 2011 Frozen Four semifinals.

“They play the game the right way,” Jackson said. “Scott’s one heckuva coach and we have such respect for them as a program. I know how they play the game. They play a fast game.”

The Irish won their fifth straight one-goal game and improved to 14-3 in that category with a 4-3 victory over Michigan thanks to senior center Jake Evans’ game-winning goal with 5.2 seconds remaining in Thursday’s second semifinal.

The Bulldogs, who are 6-8 in one-goal games, marked their territory in the championship game for the second straight season by ousting Ohio State, 2-1. A year ago, Denver beat Duluth 3-2 in the championship game in Chicago after the Irish fell 6-1 to the Pioneers in the semifinals.

There’s a lot of mutual respect between the two former rivals in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, and the Irish and Bulldogs have a lot in common this season – strong goaltending, stout defensive corps and opportunistic offenses.

Notre Dame is led by sophomore goaltender Cale Morris, who improved to 27-7-1 this season despite seeing his goals-against average rise to miniscule 1.94 and his save percentage fall to .944. His Duluth counterpart, Hunter Shepard, improved to 24-14-1, to 1.93 in goals-against average and to .924 in save percentage.

Morris has a more experienced group of defensemen in front of him, led by seniors Jordan Gross (10 goals and 30 points) and Justin Wade, juniors Dennis Gilbert and Bobby Nardella and sophomore Andrew Peeke. The sophomore Wolff is the most senior among Duluth’s blue-line corps that has five freshmen, including 5-foot-10, 170-pound Scott Perunovich, who leads the team in scoring with 11 goals and 36 points.

Duluth’s top line of center Peter Krieger and wingers Riley Tufte and Joey Anderson have 28 goals and 86 points between them. Evans and fellow center Andrew Oglevie pace the Irish in scoring with 45 and 38 points, respectively, while Oglevie and speedy right wing Cal Burke lead in goals with 14 each.

“Everyone contributes, everyone knows their role, and everyone does their job, which is the biggest part of it,” Irish left wing Malmquist said.

It’s a group that Jackson likes even though Notre Dame’s penchant for dramatic goals — five straight wins, three in the last 30 seconds of regulation and two in overtime — have earned them a nickname: The Cardiac Kids.

“These kids have found a way to get it done,” Jackson said. “They find a way. They’re calm.”

That calmness could take Notre Dame for the first time to the promised land.

NCAA FROZEN FOUR

Who: Minnesota Duluth (24-16-3) vs. Notre Dame (28-9-2).

When: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT.

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

TV: ESPN. Radio: WZOC-FM (94.3).

Ice chips: Making their fourth Frozen Four trip under coach Jeff Jackson, the Irish seek their first NCAA title in the 50 years of the modern program. … Duluth, in its sixth Frozen Four, and Notre Dame spent 10 years together as members of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association before the Irish, Michigan, Michigan State and Michigan Tech bolted the WCHA for the now defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association prior for the 1981-82 season. … The teams have played 44 times with the Irish holding a 22-16-6 edge. … The Bulldogs earned a 4-3 victory over the Irish in the Frozen Four semifinals the last time it was played at the Xcel Energy Center in 2011 and then won their only championship two nights later with a 3-2 overtime victory against Michigan. … Since 2011, the teams have played 11 times, which the Bulldogs holding a 5-4-2 edge, but Notre Dame won the last meeting 3-1 on Oct. 15, 2016. … Notre Dame is scheduled to host Duluth next October.

Notre Dame players react to the goal that won the game against Michigan during the third period of a semifinal in the NCAA men's Frozen Four hockey tournament Thursday in St. Paul, Minn. Notre Dame won 4-3. (AP Photo/STACY BENGS)