With the Gophers riding a five-game winning streak and having triumphed in seven of their past eight games, it’s not surprising the team carries confidence into Saturday’s Big Ten semifinal at Notre Dame. In fact, one could even say the Gophers have a swagger to them.
“There’s a buzz in the air with us right now,” sophomore forward Brannon McManus said, “and it’s fun to be around.”
Mat Robson took it a step further. “We’re a very talented team,” the junior goalie said. “Other teams are scared to play us on a nightly basis. If we bring our ‘A’ game, we can play and beat anyone in the country.”
The Gophers will see if they can keep that momentum going at Compton Family Ice Arena. Minnesota (18-15-4) must beat the Fighting Irish (20-13-3) to keep its season going. The only way for the Gophers to qualify for the NCAA tournament is to win the Big Ten tourney, which would give them an automatic bid. Notre Dame is No. 15 in the PairWise Ratings, right on the bubble for an NCAA at-large bid, so the Irish need a win, too. Saturday’s winner will face Sunday’s Penn State-Ohio State victor for the Big Ten title on March 23 or 24.
Gophers coach Bob Motzko likes what he sees from his team, which swept Michigan 3-2 in overtime and 4-1 last weekend in the Big Ten tourney’s quarterfinals. Minnesota has fared well against Notre Dame, last year’s NCAA runner-up to Minnesota Duluth. The Gophers swept the Irish on the road 5-1 and 2-1 in mid-January, then split the Feb. 23-23 series at home, losing 3-2 and winning 2-1.
“We’re not going to hide the fact that we’ve got a pretty good feel about us. But I don’t think they’ve taken it one ounce further than they want to get to win No. 19,” said Motzko, in his first year as Gophers coach. “We’re in a good spot. It’s a good place to be this time of year.”
To keep that good feel going, the Gophers must solve a stingy Notre Dame team led by goalie Cale Morris, the reigning Mike Richter Award winner as the nation’s top netminder. Morris shut out Michigan State 1-0 and 2-0 in the Big Ten quarterfinals.
“They’re looking to get one [goal] and play that defensive game, that structured game,” said McManus, who has three goals and an assist against Notre Dame this season. “If you get one on them early, they’re out of their place, and they’re going to be struggling. Getting the first one will be huge.”
That, of course, is not a given with Morris in net. The junior has a 2.23 goals-against average and .929 save percentage, and he stopped 55 shots last weekend.
Motzko embraces the fact that his team, which finished third in the Big Ten regular-season standings to Notre Dame’s second, has the challenge of a road game.
“We’ve been home three straight weeks now. Complacency starts to set in, and I think the road’s going to do us good,” he said. “I don’t think Notre Dame is gonna do us good; they’re playing awfully well right now.”
The Gophers are encouraged by their previous visit to South Bend, when they finished a sweep on Blake McLaughlin’s goal at 19:52 of third period for a 2-1 win.
“I remember Blake scoring with seven seconds left, and the building kind of dying, which was nice,” Robson said. “I like a silent away building.’’