Ann Arbor — Now, it’s the Michigan hockey team's time to take a shot at glory when the Wolverines play in the Frozen Four at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, taking on Big Ten champion Notre Dame in a national semifinal Thursday night.
The No. 10 Wolverines enter play as the hottest team in the field, going 9-0-1 in their last 10 games, including a 4-2, 1-0 sweep of No. 2 Notre Dame back on Feb. 16-18. Their lone loss came at Ohio State March 10, 3-2 in overtime in a Big Ten tournament semifinal.
No. 5 Ohio State will play No. 11 Minnesota-Duluth at 6 p.m. (ESPN2) with the Michigan-Notre Dame semifinal to follow at 9:30. The title game is set for Saturday night.
Michigan played sub-.500 hockey for the first half of the season (8-10-2) while getting accustomed to playing for first-year head coach Mel Pearson, then turned the corner with a 14-4-1 second-half run, which earned the Wolverines an at-large berth into the NCAA tournament.
The Wolverines took care of business with a 3-2 win over Northeastern, followed by a 6-3 victory over Boston University to win the Northeast Regional title for the right to move on to the Frozen Four, their first since 2011 when they lost 3-2 in overtime to Minnesota-Duluth at the Xcel Center in the national title game.
Michigan showcases one of the premier lines in college hockey in junior Cooper Marody (16 goals, 49 points, plus-20) centering the line of Tony Calderone (24 goals, 42 points) and Dexter Dancs (11 goals, 26 points), but Pearson has also been blessed with an outstanding tandem of freshman phenom Quinn Hughes and 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior Joseph Cecconi on defense.
Hughes has been teamed with Cecconi during the second half of the season, and Cecconi has responded with 11 points (goal, 10 assists) and a plus-10 rating in the last 10 games while Hughes has three goals and 12 points with a plus-6 rating in that span.
“It’s been a great season, lots of ups and downs for sure, but I’m just really happy with how the season has ended and we’re really excited to get to the Frozen Four since it’s super hard to get there,” Hughes said. “I don’t think my season could have been better with the team success and my success since I’ve helped the team offensively ... but I think I’ve helped the team as much defensively: My plus-minus is at 15.
“I think I’ve really helped my team at both ends. We’re not done yet. I think I’m really going to be able to push Thursday and hopefully Saturday and hopefully be able to bring some hardware back to Michigan.”
Hughes, an offensive-minded defenseman, is expected to be a top-10 draft pick in the upcoming NHL Draft with his younger brother, Jack – a center for the U.S. National Development team — a possible No. 1 pick in 2019.
Hughes played the first half of the season with Luke Martin. After returning from the World Junior tournament, he paired up with Cecconi.
“I wasn’t really happy with how the World Juniors went, obviously we didn’t win and I didn’t play that much,” said Hughes. “When I came back here I was just hungry and wanted to help our team win and tried to be dominant every time I touched the ice. That tournament kind of just motivated me.
“When I came back from World Juniors I played with Joe and we clicked a little better, just been great together and it clicks naturally. He’s super smart and is good defensively and he can play offensive too. We always have the puck at the point and we’re interchangeable, like we can switch and move around. He has a good instinct for the offensive side as well.”
After having just a goal and 15 points in his first two years, Cecconi has five goals and 26 points this season, including two goals and 14 points since being teamed up with Hughes back in early January.
“I think it might be pretty perfect, to tell you the truth,” said Cecconi of being paired with Hughes. “I’m more defensively minded, but can contribute offensively since I have a good hockey IQ. And, then there’s Quinn who is just offensively the most gifted player in the country probably.”
Cecconi feels Michigan’s push to the Frozen Four started when Pearson named 6-3 sophomore Hayden Lavigne his No. 1 goalie in January. Lavigne is 18-10-3 with a 2.77 goals-against-average and save percentage of .909.
“We all knew he could do it from Day 1, I think it’s just confidence,” said Cecconi of Lavigne.
Michigan had a kid named Marty Turco in net the last time the Wolverines won the national championship in 1998, when Pearson was an assistant coach.
While Pearson knows Lavigne isn’t Turco, he sure feels confident having him in goal.
“I don’t know if he’s Marty Turco, but he’s as good as anybody right now, in one game he’s as good as any of those guys in the field,” Pearson said.
Michigan won’t feel the pressure at the Xcel Center since it has been playing playoff hockey for months.
“We’ve been playing playoff hockey for a while now, really two or three months because if we didn’t pick our game up we wouldn’t be playing right now,” Hughes said. “We match up good against Notre Dame. Obviously, they won the Big Ten and they’re No. 1 ranked, but we’re excited for the task. We don’t fear them at all and we know we can play with them. I can’t wait to play those guys.”
At Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minn.
Michigan vs. Notre Dame
Faceoff: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Records: Michigan 22-14-3, Notre Dame 27-9-2
Minnesota-Duluth vs. Ohio State
Faceoff: 6 p.m. Thursday
Records: Minnesota-Duluth 23-16-3, Ohio State 26-9-5
Faceoff: 7:30 Saturday