Monday night may not have ended the way we all wanted it to, with Villanova cutting down the nets and claiming their place among college basketball’s greatest teams ever. But, don’t fall asleep, Wolverines fans, for there’s another Michigan team with a chance at a national title this weekend: Michigan hockey. Last week, I wrote about the Wolverines’ triumph in the Northeast Regional, punching themselves a ticket to St. Paul to play in this week’s Frozen Four against Notre Dame. The other matchup is Ohio State vs. Minnesota Duluth, and I’m here to preview them both:
(3) Minnesota Duluth vs. Ohio State (1): 7:00 PM EST
You may know this meme, of Spiderman pointing at the other Spiderman, denoting when two things are the same. This meme is the Duluth-OSU game, two very similar teams, across most metrics. Let’s take a look:
Goals Scored: Duluth 128, OSU 130
Goals Allowed: Duluth 90, OSU 83
Last 12 Games: Duluth 9-3, OSU 8-3-1
Shooting Percentage: Duluth 9.9%, OSU 9.9%
Power Play Percentage: Duluth 23.9%, OSU 23.9%
So yes, these two squads are eerily similar. Now the question becomes, where are the differences? For Ohio State, it’s the penalty kill, which ranks #1 in college hockey at 89.29%. It is what has elevated them to elite status, and the combo of a #6 PP and a #1 PK is their winning formula. Duluth’s PK is no slouch, at 82.58%, but it’s not the tremendous strength that it is for the Buckeyes. Where Duluth will have an advantage is in puck possession. While Ohio State is not a bad puck possession team, Duluth is one of the best, with a 54.1% CF (the percent of the game your team has the puck), good for #8 in college hockey. They’re even better at even strength, with a 55.6% CF, #5 in college hockey, while Ohio State is at #16. When the two teams are at even strength, Duluth will have the advantage, and so it is crucial for the Bulldogs to stay out of the box and maximize chances in 5 on 5 play.
As for the netminders, both teams have excellent players between the pipes. For Ohio State, it’s Sean Romeo, who has come out of nowhere to be a stud, sporting a .927 save percentage and a 2.05 GAA. However, Hunter Shepard for Duluth, a first year starter, has been even better, with a .924 save percentage and a 1.95 GAA, without the benefit of an elite penalty kill alongside him. Goals figure to be hard to come by in this type of a matchup.
The intangibles seem to favor Minnesota-Duluth. First off, they will be the de facto home team in St. Paul. Only around a 2 hour drive from Duluth, the Bulldogs had tons of fans in the XCel Energy Center in 2011, when they bested Michigan for the National Championship and I expect them to have by far the biggest contingency on Thursday night. Oh, and with the rest of the building being packed with Irish and Wolverine fans, it should be a very hostile crowd to Ohio State. The other aspect that Duluth wields the upper hand in is experience. Sorta. This is their second consecutive Frozen Four, coming up one goal short in the finals a year ago. The Buckeyes meanwhile, hadn’t made the Frozen Four since 1998 prior to 2018. However, only about half the players on Duluth’s roster actually played in last year’s Frozen Four trip, since they lost 7 seniors to graduation, 3 underclassmen to the NHL, including their goalie and 6 of their 8 highest scoring players off last year’s team. Yet, despite rolling with a freshman-heavy roster, Duluth is right back in play for a title, a sign of how well they are coached. Another factor is NHL talent. Duluth has 6 NHL draft picks on their team, while OSU only has 3. Will it matter? Only time will tell.
Conclusion: The team that gets ahead early is going to win, I think. Both teams are strong enough defensively that if they get the early goal, they should lock it down. In fact, Duluth is 52-0-3 when leading after two periods since 2015 (!!!!). That’s an astonishing stat, but shows you that the Bulldogs know how to hold onto a lead. But it’s also Ohio State’s style of play, so that first goal will be immense. This should be a very close and very fun contest that I’m looking forward to watching. I’m not going to make a prediction because college hockey is such a random sport, though I’m leaning Duluth. But it should be a great and tight game.
(2) Michigan vs. (1) Notre Dame: 9:00 PM EST
The other semifinal is an old CCHA rivalry game, and in the current lingo, a Big Ten rivalry. Michigan and Notre Dame played each other 4 times this season, splitting the games 2-2, and they feature contrasting styles and also different season paths to this point. Notre Dame had a slowish start (3-3-1) before ripping off 16 (!) straight wins, including a clean sweep of the first matchup with every Big Ten foe. They essentially had the conference title in the bag in early January and then entered a 2+ month long slump. The Fighting Irish are only 8-6-1 over their last 15 games, which includes the current 4 game win streak to get themselves here.
So one argument could be that Notre Dame simply took their foot off the gas once they had things in the bag, but that argument doesn’t hold a lot of weight, since the dominant team of early in the season isn’t there. Even though they’ve won 4 straight games, 2 were in overtime and the other 2 had game winning goals with under 60 seconds left in regulation (so, basically overtime). But part of that is just Notre Dame’s style (we’ll get to that in a second).
On the flip side, Michigan is the most unlikely team in the Frozen Four. While the other three teams all made the tourney a year ago, and ND and Duluth were in last year’s Frozen Four, Michigan was 13-19-3, in the unfortunate final year of Red Berenson’s legendary tenure. Picked to finish second to last in the Big Ten in the preseason, new Head Coach Mel Pearson coaxed the potential out of this NHL talent-laden squad, but it took time. In early January, Michigan was 8-10-2, with a distant hope for an NCAA tournament appearance fading away. But since then, they’ve gone 14-4-1, becoming college hockey’s hottest team. The Wolverines haven’t lost in regulation since early February and are firing on all cylinders, and with 10+ NHL draft picks on the roster, that fact is scary.
So, when I say these two teams have contrasting styles, what I’m referring to is that Michigan will try and outscore you. Notre Dame by and large, doesn’t really play offense. While Michigan is a solid puck possession team at even strength, 51.1 CF%, Notre Dame is very bad at it, with a 46.9 CF%. In “close situations”, Michigan is at 53.0 CF%, while the Irish are at a measly 47.1%. But that’s just ND’s style. They have the #2 PK in the country, one of the top goalies in Cale Morris, and they play defense. They try and get an early lead and then grind out the victory. But that timid and defensive style has made for some decently one-sided games between the two at even strength. Indeed, in the four games the two teams played against each other this year, all 7 of Michigan’s goals were at even strength, while just one of Notre Dame’s goals were! The Irish converted 5 times on the power play, thanks to Michigan’s dreadful penalty kill, and that’s kind of the game plan for Michigan. If the Wolverines take only one or two penalties, they’ll win. But if they let Notre Dame get goals on multiple PP chances, it will be danger time.
Now the good news is that in the two games in Worcester, Michigan was far more disciplined than earlier in the season, taking just 2 penalties in each of the two games played. That clip should be enough to win, since Michigan hasn’t had a lot of issues getting chances at even strength against Notre Dame, and shouldn’t on Thursday. Since January 1st, Michigan has been the highest goal scoring team in college hockey, with 80 goals in 23 games (3.48 GPG), and even against a good defensive team like the Irish, Michigan should be able to score a few goals.
The other important thing to note is that one of the two losses Michigan had against Notre Dame came without star defenseman Quinn Hughes and 2nd line centerman Josh Norris, who were playing in the World Junior Championships. Since then, Hughes has elevated his game to become one of the best defensemen to ever play at Michigan. He was the best player on the ice in Worcester and he should be again in St. Paul. A top 10 pick in this June’s NHL Draft, Hughes is something Notre Dame doesn’t have and his growth even since the teams last played in February has been immense. And that fact is pretty indicative of this matchup overall. Despite playing very disciplined system hockey, Notre Dame doesn’t have a ton of NHL talent on the roster, while Michigan absolutely does. That talent gap could be a real issue for the Irish in this contest.
Conclusion: As I’ve made it abundantly clear, I really like this matchup for Michigan. Again, college hockey is college hockey, which means the craziest things will happen, but Notre Dame is the team I most wanted to see Michigan play out of the top seeds in the tourney. As for the game plan, besides not taking penalties, Michigan needs to start strong again. They scored the first goal in both games in the Northeast Regional in Worcester and also did so in the sweep of ND in February. In both games, Michigan busted out of the gate and dominated play until they got the lead. Then entering the 3rd period with the lead, the Wolverines basically turtled and tried to hang on. I want Michigan to stay aggressive the entire game and not get defensive, especially if they have a lead on a team like ND, which isn’t really comfortable playing from behind. Not making a prediction, but I like Michigan’s chances of playing in the title game on Saturday night.