One team has played in 10 consecutive one-goal games in NCAA tournament play, winning seven of them.
The other team has won five nail-biters in a row, with two of those games decided in overtime and three settled with a goal in the final 31 seconds of regulation.
Come Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center, something’s got to give between Minnesota Duluth and Notre Dame in this matchup of tightrope-walking hockey teams for the national championship in the NCAA Frozen Four.
The Bulldogs, those one-goal-game wonders, and the Fighting Irish, the beat-the-clock artists, face off with a signature victory going to one of them. For Minnesota Duluth, a win means a second national title, which would be a nice bookend for the 2011 crown it won in St. Paul. For Notre Dame, a win would bring the proud school its first national hockey championship. And if things go by the script that both teams have written recently, the ending should be tight and tense.
“My heart’s becoming callused,’’ Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said late Thursday night, after Jake Evans’ goal with 5.2 seconds left in the third period — adjusted by officials from the original 3.7 seconds left — gave the Fighting Irish a 4-3 semifinal victory over Michigan.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s another 2-1 hockey game,’’ said Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, whose Bulldogs held off a late Ohio State surge to win 2-1 in the semifinals. “We can all surprise you and have a 5-4 game, but I’m just expecting it to be a real tight, lower-scoring game.’’
Though both teams landed at the same destination, how they got there differed. Notre Dame (28-9-2) was dominant for most of the season, ran off a 16-game winning streak and entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 2 overall seed. Minnesota Duluth (24-16-3), hit hard by graduation and pro signings following last year’s NCAA runner-up finish, struggled early, grew as freshmen matured and grabbed the last at-large bid in the NCAA field.
The long bus ride
On St. Patrick’s Day, the Bulldogs’ NCAA tournament hopes looked to be cooked. They went 0-2 in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Xcel Center, falling to North Dakota in the third-place game. It appeared Minnesota would be the last team in the NCAA field. But on the bus ride back to Duluth, Sandelin and his players checked scores on their cellphones and saw a series of conference tournament finals go their way. Upon arrival in Duluth, they rushed to TVs to catch the end of the Big Ten tournament final. When Notre Dame beat Ohio State in overtime, UMD was in the NCAA field and the Gophers were out.
Sandelin joked Wednesday that he owed Jackson a beer for Notre Dame’s victory. Jackson said the debt has been paid. “I’ll still get him one, though,’’ Sandelin added Friday.
The Bulldogs have seized that second chance.
“Watching that game on the bus and in the locker room when we got home was a nail-biter,’’ said sophomore Nick Wolff, the dean of a Bulldogs defensive corps that features five freshmen. “But once we knew Notre Dame scored and we were in the tournament, it was a full-court press. We were going to give it our all.’’
That showed in the West Regional in Sioux Falls, where Minnesota Duluth first overcame a two-goal deficit and beat Minnesota State Mankato 3-2 in overtime, then held off a scrappy Air Force team 2-1 to advance to the Frozen Four. Tight games don’t bother the Bulldogs.
“It’s nothing new to us,’’ Wolff said. “We have all the confidence and believing in each other and trusting each other that if they score one on us, we’ll get one right back.’’
UMD goalie Hunter Shepard likes the one-goal games — with a catch: “If you win them, yeah.’’
Pluck of the Irish
Notre Dame’s run of late heroics began in the Big Ten semifinals, when the Irish beat Penn State on a goal with 31 seconds left in the third period. Then came the OT winner against Ohio State in the Big Ten final.
The Fighting Irish’s route to St. Paul was paved in the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn., when defenseman Jordan Gross of Maple Grove scored in overtime to beat Michigan Tech 4-3 and when forward Dylan Malmquist of Edina scored with 27 seconds left in the third period to beat Providence 2-1.
The run is similar to what Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team did in winning the NCAA title, when Arike Ogunbowale hit the winning shot with 1 second left in overtime to beat Connecticut in the semifinals and the winning three-pointer as time expired to beat Mississippi State for the title.
“We’re giving them a run for their money right now,’’ Malmquist said.
Jackson likes the fact that his team is winning dramatically, but he’s concerned, too.
“These situations, there’s been some luck to it as well,’’ he said. “… It’s almost like it’s meant to be. But you can’t rely on that.’’
Wolff wants to make sure of that. The former Eagan standout is a friend of Malmquist — but not on Saturday night.
“I was like, man, you saved us, thank you,’’ Wolff said of Notre Dame’s win that helped the Bulldogs make the NCAA field.
“And now it’s like he’s still a buddy, but when Saturday comes around he’s not going to be.”