April 6, 2011
NCAA Frozen Four



Thurs., April 8 • 5 p.m. ET ESPN2


18-7-3-2 (2nd)
15-8-5 (4th)
PP Pct.
PK Pct.
3.44 (10th)
2.72 (23rd)
.162 (T-39th)
.817 (32nd)
12.8 (38th)
3.40 (11th)
2.58 (17th)
.225 (14th)
.818 (29th)
14.9 (14th)

NOTRE DAME: Northeast Regional third seed
Notre Dame 4, Merrimack 3 (ot)
Notre Dame 2, New Hampshire 1

MINNESOTA DULUTH: East Regional third seed
Minnesota Duluth 2, Union 0
Minnesota Duluth 5, Yale 3

T.J. Tynan and Anders Lee get most of the attention for their phenomenal freshman seasons, but Notre Dame’s depth and versatility at forward is underrated. Veterans Billy Maday and Calle Ridderwall have combined for 89 career goals, including 25 this year; senior forward Ben Ryan is nearing 100 points for his career; and another senior, playmaking wing Ryan Guentzel, has 37 points this season after scoring just 21 points in his first three years in an Irish uniform. Jeff Costello (11 goals), David Gerths (eight goals), and Nick Larson (10 goals) are big, physical forwards with the ability to score greasy goals in high-traffic areas. Then there’s Riley Sheahan, who may just be the best defensive forward in college hockey.

For the Bulldogs, it all starts the the FCC Line of Justin Fontaine, Jack Connolly, and Mike Connolly—the trio has combined for 66 of the Bulldogs’ 136 goals this season, and all three are averaging better than a point per game for their careers. But freshman J.T. Brown has 10 goals and 18 points in his last 17 games and Travis Oleksuk, despite a recent goal drought (just three in UMD’s last 16 games) is a fine complemetary scorer. One key to the Bulldogs’ success in the East Regional was timely goals from Kyle Schmidt and Mike Seidel. The FCC Line is good enough to carry UMD by themselves but as we saw in the East Regional, the Bulldogs are a far better team when they’re not.

Here, in a nutshell, is what you’ll get out of Notre Dame’s defensemen—smart first passes out of their own end, a commitment on clearing traffic in front of goaltender Mike Johnson, and a focus on keeping opposing forwards on the perimeter when they’ve got the puck in the offensive zone. That’s what you saw in the Fighting Irish’s Northeast Regional win against New Hampshire; the Wildcats had 38 shots on goal, but very few were grade-A scoring chances. Notre Dame’s most notable rearguards Sam Calabrese who, at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, is the team’s smallest defender and hard-hitting, hard-shooting Stephen Johns, whose approach to the game resembles the name of his Pennsylvania hometown--Wampum.

Of the defensemen appearing in the Frozen Four, the Bulldogs’ Justin Faulk may be the best of ‘em all. The freshman scored eight goals and 30 points in 37 games; six of those goals came on the power play, where his blast from the point is a real weapon. He’s got at least one point in eight of UMD’s last 10 games and has 2-9—11 during that span. The rest of the Bulldogs’ defensive corps is relatively unheralded. Senior Mike Montgomery, the team captain, and sophomore Wade Bergman had terrific showings against Union and Yale in the East Regional. This group will block a ton of shots—UMD averages 14.6 blocked shots per game and knocked down a total of 41 shots in the wins against Union and Yale.

Both Notre Dame’s Mike Johnson and UMD’s Kenny Reiter have had their share of ups and downs over the course of the season. If you caught any of their work in the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament two weekends ago, you witnessed the highs; both were named MVP of their respective regionals. Neither, however, is far removed from their lows—Reiter allowed three goals on 21 shots in a loss to Bemidji State in the opening round of the WCHA Final Five and was pegged for five goals on 28 shots in a loss at Nebraska-Omaha in February, while Johnson was victimized for six goals on 18 shots in a CCHA tournament semifinal loss to Miami and five goals on 28 shots in a tie with the RedHawks in late January.

The similarities don’t end with the inconsistencies. Both are of average size—Johnson is 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, and Reiter is 5-11, 170. They’re fairly old by collegiate standards; Johnson is a 22-year-old sophomore while Reiter is a 24-year-old junior. In terms of playing styles, neither goalie is particulary adept at scrambling and both have the propensity to give up a soft goal every so often. Ultimately, the netminder who keeps it simple—minimizes rebounds, makes all the saves he’s expected to make—should win.

This is the one area where one team may have a marked advantage. The Minnesota Duluth power play ranks 11th in the nation, clicking at 22.5 percent success rate. The Bulldogs were clicking at the East Regional, converting on five of 17 man-advantage opportunities. The real revelation in Bridgeport, however, was the team's penalty kill, which stifled all nine of Union's power-play oppotunities in their first-round win and and snuffed out five of Yale's first six power plays in the regional final.

For a team that is among the nation's top-scoring units, Notre Dame's power-play is surprisingly mediocre. The Irish enter the Frozen Four tied for 39th in the country with a 16.2 percent success rate. The Fighting Irish are also in the middle of the pack on the penalty kill, ranking 32nd nationally. But Notre Dame did show a proclivity for scoring shorthanded goals—they've got 12 on the season, second only to Boston College in that category, but haven't potted one on the penalty kill since mid-January.

Scott Sandelin has been to one Frozen Four as a head coach, but his most masterful effort behind the Bulldog bench may have been 2009, when UMD marched to the WCHA playoff championship by winning three games at the Final Five, then rallied to beat Princeton in overtime before losing to Miami in the regional final. This team is similar in many respects—they've been streaky, but still seem to have a lot of confidence. Some of that is attributable to Sandelin, who is never too high nor too low and doesn't panic.

Jeff Jackson is one of the best coaches in college hockey history. He won two national championships at Lake Superior State in the 1990s and piloted the Lakers to two additional Frozen Fours; this marks his second trip to the Frozen with Notre Dame. He's done a terrific job of retooling a group that underachieved in 2009-10 into a team that was among the country's most pleasant surprises this season. A terrific tactician, the Fighting Irish have bought into his system.

WHY NOTRE DAME WINS: Their forward depth is too much for Minnesota Duluth to handle and the defensive gameplan the Fighting Irish executed to near perfection against New Hampshire works just as well against the Bulldogs. They must neutralize UMD's potent power play and keep the FCC Line in check. The Irish are a very good second- and third-period team, so it would behoove them not to fall behind in the first period. If Notre Dame can do all those things and goalie Mike Johnson makes the saves he's supposed to make, the Irish will advance to Saturday's title game.

WHY MINNESOTA DULLUTH WINS: Jumping out to an early lead compels Notre Dame to take more chances offensively, forcing them to alter their defensive system which, in turn, generates more scoring opportunities for the Bulldogs. If someone not named Connolly, Fontaine, Brown, or Oleksuk can pot a goal or two, that would certainly help. Also, the longer Kenny Reiter holds the Irish at bay, the more his confidence grows, and the harder it'll be to crack his veneer—against Union, we saw him get stronger as the game progressed.