Ann Arbor — It’s back to the NCAA tournament for the Michigan hockey team after a three-year absence.
Michigan coach Red Berenson’s goal was to get the Wolverines back to greatness, feeling they haven’t been at that level since a 2011 national championship game loss to Minnesota-Duluth.
Well, the Wolverines (24-7-5) are back to being great, earning their first Big Ten title Saturday, coming back from a 3-2 third-period deficit to defeat Minnesota 5-3 in the conference championship game in St. Paul.
Michigan’s reward is a NCAA tourney first-round game against old rival Notre Dame (19-10-7) Friday at 5:30 p.m. (ESPNU) at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati. The winner will face the North Dakota-Northeastern winner for the right to advance to the Frozen Four on April 7-9 in Tampa, Florida.
The U.S. Bank Arena, formerly known as Riverfront Coliseum, was the site of Michigan’s national championship 20 years ago.
“It’s not in your hands who you play, but we wanted to finish as strong as we could and have some momentum going into the tournament, and we did that, so we’re looking forward to getting ready for Notre Dame,” said Berenson of facing an Irish team which has lost five of their last six games and haven’t played since March 12 after getting swept in a Hockey East playoff series to Northeastern. “We like our team right now, but Notre Dame will be a hard team to play against like they always have been. They will be well-disciplined, not giving up much.
“The season’s all about building some kind of identity and it’s easy to say this is our identity at the start of the year, but can you live up to it during the year? I think our team has found a way to do some things, whether it’s our third period which has been pretty good, our comebacks have been good and our goals-against (average) is getting better. We’ve built kind of a foundation now where this team knows who they are.”
It’s definitely a team that has a capable goaltender in senior Steve Racine (19-5-3, 2.89 goals-against average, .913 save percentage), showcases the premier line in the country in Hobey Baker candidates in freshman Kyle Connor (35 goals, 69 points), Tyler Motte (31 goals) and JT Compher (46 assists).
Connor leads the nation in goals and scoring and has never been better than the last two weekends, coming up with nine goals and 12 points during the last four games — all wins — including four goals in a Big Ten semifinal win Friday over Penn State.
Connor has more goals (35) than Notre Dame’s leading scorer in Anders Bjork and Jake Evans who each have 33 points.
“It’s been special, some players have a good game or a good weekend, but he’s had an unbelievable season,” Berenson said of Connor. “But this last week, to score four goals in one game … it just seems like when the puck’s on his stick it’s in the net.
“And the line has been good, let’s face it. Last night we scored five goals and they scored four of them. That’s what the line is, like Tyler Motte scored the first goal of the game and the last goal of the game. It’s nice to get him going. He’s been hampered by a subtle injury that looks like he’s over that now.”
The last time Michigan faced Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament was in the 2008 Frozen Four in Denver when the Irish pulled out an overtime win over the No. 1 Wolverines in the national semifinal.
The last time Michigan faced Notre Dame was in the 2013 CCHA tournament championship game when the Irish pulled out a 3-1 win at Joe Louis Arena, ending the Wolverines’ run of 22 consecutive NCAA tourney appearances, along with 25 consecutive winning seasons.
It was the play Racine, then a freshman, which had the Wolverines on a nine-game winning streak heading into the 2012 CCHA title game.
Now, Racine is a veteran who is looking for a little revenge against the Irish, the same way the Wolverines avenged their Big Ten championship game loss to Minnesota a year ago at JLA.
“I was actually talking to (senior forward) Justin (Selman) a minute ago and I think it’s the only team that my class has played a couple of times and haven’t beat so everyone’s really excited, it should be a fun weekend,” said Racine of facing Notre Dame. “I remember they were really big, strong and physical (in 2013) and we had problems with that and they kind of took it to us a little bit. We haven’t seen them in a couple of years so I couldn’t really tell you much about them yet, but we’ll be ready.”
Racine has been helped by Michigan’s new goaltender coach and former Wolverine goalie Steve Shields.
“He’s been tremendous for me,” Racine said of Shields. “I’m playing a little calmer game, staying back in my net a little more. I’m not getting as out of control. It’s made a world of difference and I feel great.”
Ferris State in tourney
Ferris State earned its way into the tourney this past weekend at VanAndel Arena in Grand Rapids.
The Bulldogs (19-14-6) entered the WCHA playoffs with a mediocre record, then swept Northern Michigan before their semifinal showdown against regular-season champion Michigan Tech (23-9-5), preventing Tech from an NCAA tourney bid with a 1-0 shutout with freshman goaltender Darren Smith turning aside all 30 shots he faced.
Ferris State punched its ticket with a 2-1 title game win over Minnesota State on Saturday, putting on an outstanding defensive effort with Smith only needing to stop 13 shots.
Junior forward Gerald Mayhew (Wyandotte) leads the Bulldogs with 14 goals and 36 points, scoring the winner in the second period against Minnesota State.
Smith has played well (16-9-5, 2.15, .923) and will need to continue his strong play when the Bulldogs face No. 4 ranked St. Cloud State (31-8-1) in the West Regional at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul at 3 p.m. Saturday. The winner plays the Boston University-Denver winner at 5 p.m. Sunday.
The last time the Frozen Four was held in Tampa, Ferris State played for the national title in 2012, falling to Boston College, 4-1.
Michigan vs. Notre Dame
What: First-round game in NCAA Midwest Region.
When: Friday, 5:30 p.m.
Where: U.S. Bank Arena, Cincinnati
At stake: Spot in Midwest Region final on Saturday against North Dakota-Northeastern winner.