No. 2 seed Michigan draws defending champion Minnesota Duluth in NCAA hockey tournament

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

The Michigan Wolverines had a tough road to winning the Big Ten championship in both regular season and tournament play.

Their road to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh on April 8 and 10 might be even tougher.

Michigan (15-10-1) drew a 2-seed in the NCAA’s 16-team bracket on Sunday night, earning a first-round matchup with the back-to-back defending champion Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs in the Fargo region on March 26.

Should the Wolverines get past 3-seed Duluth (14-10-2) —  which served Michigan an overtime heartbreaker in the 2011 National Championship — they will face the winner of AIC-North Dakota, on March 27. North Dakota is the top-seeded team in the

But don’t let that fool you: This Michigan group is dangerous. 

Michigan's Thomas Bordeleau

Freshmen make up the team’s top four scorers, with Thomas Bordeleau (San Jose Sharks) leading the way with eight goals and 21 assists in 22 games played. Kent Johnson had eight and 17, Matt Beniers 10 and 13, and Brendan Brisson (Vegas Golden Knights) eight and 11.

Junior goaltender and team captain Strauss Mann was named a Big Ten Goaltender of the Year finalist after winning the award in 2019-20.

Michigan finished eighth in the nation in goals-for-per-game (3.50) and fifth in goals-against-per-game (1.96).

Michigan battened down the hatches in the second half of its season, going 8-3-1. Two of those losses were on the second night of back-to-backs vs. No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 3 Minnesota, which the Wolverines beat in the first matchup of each series.

“Part of that was all the freshman we had. It’s a learning process,” Michigan head coach Mel Pearson told The Detroit News on Sunday night. 

“There was so much noise going on early in the year with the draft, the World Juniors going on, we lost a number of players to that. … Once we got past all of that, our team came together. We like our team, and we’ve grown in so many areas, that I feel we’re a much better team.”

Minnesota (Loveland region) and Wisconsin (Bridgeport) also earned top seeds in their respective regions, with Boston College (Loveland) rounding out the top-four teams in the tournament. 

How they’ll handle new territory on such a large stage seems likely to dictate how far the Wolverines will make it in the tournament. What Duluth lacks in surefire NHL talent, it makes up for with guys who’ve been here before: The top six scorers on the Bulldogs roster are juniors or seniors.

“What they do is they don’t beat themselves,” Pearson said. “They just go about their business. They’re just a workman-like team, they don’t care if they get the headlines.”

Still, the Wolverines wouldn’t have gotten here without a solid leadership group of their own. Its senior class fell in the 2018 Frozen Four to Notre Dame, and last year’s Michigan team had a solid shot of making a run after closing the season on a similar run.

“We have guys who’ve been there,” Pearson said. “They know what it takes, and without a doubt, they’re the heartbeat of this team. They’re the leadership of this team, and they’ve done an excellent job with our young players and keeping them on the rails, and keeping our focus more than anything.”

Tournament protocols state that replacement teams will only be considered within 24 hours of the bracket’s release, meaning that should a team receive a positive COVID test later than 7 p.m. Monday, its next opponent will automatically advance by the NCAA’s “no contest” rule.

One school has already received such fate: St. Lawrence was forced to withdraw from the tournament just one day after earning its first bid since 2007 by beating Quinnipiac, 3-2 in overtime, on Saturday night. 

Red Wings fans might want to keep an eye on Quinnipiac, which is led in goal by Red Wings goaltending prospect Keith Petruzzelli. 

The 22-year-old netminder was taken 88th overall by Detroit in the 2017 draft and finished as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the best player in college hockey, after posting a .927 save percentage and 1.82 goals-against-average in 28 games.

Lake Superior State rounds out the schools from Michigan that will be participating in the tournament, earning a 3-seed in the Bridgeport region.

NCAA hockey

No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3. Minnesota Duluth

Faceoff: 4 p.m. Friday, Scheels Arena, Fargo, N.D.

Records: Michigan 15-10-1, Minnesota Duluth 14-10-2