Notre Dame hockey notebook: Duluth carrying state banner against Irish

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SAINT PAUL, Minn. — There is no state prouder of its hockey heritage than Minnesota.

Go to the Mall of America in nearby Bloomington, the largest mall in the country and 12th largest in the world, and you will find Hockey Minnesota by Goldy’s Locker Room, which has assorted hats, t-shirts, sweatshirts and other clothing items for both sexes with a logo “State of Hockey” over the outline of the state of Minnesota.

Saturday night when the men’s NCAA Division I hockey championship was played at the Xcel Energy Center in the heart of the state capital, Minnesota Duluth was seeking its second national title in the building against top-ranked Notre Dame, a 50-year-old upstart from the basketball state of Indiana seeking its first.

Duluth, a port city on Lake Superior 2½ hours northeast of the Twin Cities, most assuredly was a ghost town Saturday night when the Bulldogs and Fighting Irish faced off at 7:30 p.m. EDT. More than 18,000 fans were expected in the home of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, and it would not be surprising if three quarters of them either have ties to Duluth (one of five men’s Division I hockey programs in the state) or were rooting against Jeff Jackson’s Irish.

Coach Scott Sandelin’s Bulldogs beat Ohio State 2-1 in Thursday’s Frozen Four semifinals with 14 of its 21 dressed players from inside the Minnesota borders. Coincidentally, one of the seven who wasn’t – freshman center Justin Richards – was from the Buckeyes’ hometown of Columbus.

Sophomore goalie Hunter Shepard is from Cohasset, Minn. All six defensemen in front of Shepard are from the state, including freshman All-American Scott Perunovich of the Iron Range town of Hibbing. Perunovich, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound All-American who paces Duluth with 36 points (11 goals, 25 assists), has a little Bobby Orr in him with the way he handles the puck, skates up the ice and scores.

The six players who comprise Duluth’s top two lines, including left wing Riley Tufte, the team’s leading goal scorer with 16, are from the state.

“We play the Minnesota state high school hockey tournament here; it’s the best in the country,” said Duluth’s 6-foot-4, 210-pound sophomore defenseman Nick Wolff who hails from Eagan, a suburb of the Twin Cities. “Eighteen, nineteen thousand people go see that tournament. Like everyone says, it’s the State of Hockey, and it always will be.”

Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan had a total of eight Minnesotans suit up Thursday.

“Minnesota does the best job in the country of developing young players,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said Friday. “Their system, from the youth level through high school, does a tremendous job in their development and skill.

“The kids we have from Minnesota come from good families,” Jackson continued. “Generally, with good families there’s ties to religion, which obviously being a Catholic schools ties into it. And the other thing that comes generally with solid families is good academics, which also ties into Notre Dame.”

Jackson’s Irish had four Minnesotans among the 21 dressed for Thursday’s 4-3 victory over Michigan. They were former Edina High School wingers Bo Brauer and Dylan Malmquist, senior defenseman Jordan Gross of Maple Grove and freshman defenseman Matt Hellickson of Rogers. Another Minnesotan on the roster but not suited is senior defenseman Tony Bretzman of Mendota Heights. 

The Buckeyes and Wolverines had just two players each from the State of Hockey – which may explain why they watched Saturday’s championship game on ESPN.

The quiet Irish leader

Irish senior captain Jake Evans came up big Thursday night against Michigan, which took a 2-0 lead against the Irish early in the second period. First, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Toronto native, assisted on junior center Andrew Oglevie’s power-play goal that started the comeback, and he then buried a 40-foot slap shot behind Michigan goalie Hayden Lavigne to tie the game. But his biggest point of the evening game came when he fought off Michigan defender Quinn Hughes and slipped the game-winner past Lavigne with 5.2 seconds remaining in regulation.

Typically, the quiet Evans credited everyone but himself. “It’s a lot of fun because our team has so much confidence right now,” Evans said Thursday night. “When we’re down one, down two, they get a late goal, we’re a calm team and we’re a unit. No one’s getting angry or down, everyone’s staying up. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Jackson likes Evans’ unselfishness and work habits, which is why he promoted him from alternate captain (to goalie Cal Petersen) last season to overall captain this season.

“Every captain I’ve had has similar traits, character traits,” Jackson said. “I want guys that I can trust on the ice, off the ice, in the classroom; guys that are driven, guys that want to become players that want to be great. I’m not overly concerned how rah-rah they are. To lead by example is more important to me than by voice.”

“Jake has really matured,” Brauer said. “He stays focused in the locker room and really focused on the bench. He is calm all over the rink and that really helps the team. He lets everyone know we’re all right getting down 2-0. He just keeps battling. We look at him as a leader and he has stepped up big time. It’s really easy to follow a guy like that who can make big plays and stay calm under those kind of moments.”

Championship notes

Notre Dame was looking for some Frozen Four revenge Saturday night against Duluth. The Bulldogs beat the Irish 4-3 at the Xcel Energy Center in the 2011 Frozen Four semifinals before winning their only NCAA title with a 3-2 overtime victory over Michigan two nights later. ... In Notre Dame’s only previous championship appearance, the Irish lost 4-1 to Boston College in 2008 at Denver’s Pepsi Center. … Notre Dame was involved in one-goal games in its previous six games, the last five of them victories – three in the final 31 seconds and two in overtime; the Irish are 14-3 in one-goal games this season. … Notre Dame was 3-1-2 in overtime games this year. … Jackson was seeking to become only the fourth coach to lead two different programs to NCAA championship titles (his previous two came in the early 1990s while at Lake Superior State). The other coaches with titles at two different schools are Jerry York (Bowling Green, Boston College), Ned Harkness (RPI, Cornell) and Rick Comley (Northern Michigan, Michigan State). … Duluth was 22-0-1 when leading after two periods. … The Bulldogs were playing in their fourth national championship game. Besides its victory here in 2011, Duluth played in title games at the 1984 Frozen Four (losing to Bowling Green 5-4 in four overtimes at Lake Placid, N.Y.) and 2017 Frozen Four (losing to Denver 3-2 at Chicago’s United Center).

Notre Dame's Dylan Malmquist (25) moves the puck down the ice during the Big Ten semifinal hockey tournament game Saturday, March 10, 2018, at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN