NCAA championship preview: Minnesota Duluth-Notre Dame should be a close one

Minnesota Duluth and Notre Dame meet in the NCAA championship (Getty)

Thursday night as the third period in the late game between Michigan and Notre Dame drew to a close, overtime seemed assured.

The game was tied 3-3, with Michigan having scored an equalizer with just over five minutes left in the period, and Notre Dame mostly just seeming content to run out the clock. The puck was tied up along the boards in the Notre Dame end with less than 12 seconds to go, and it appeared as though that would be enough to force the extra period.

But then that tied-up puck squirted free, and off went Jake Evans and Cam Morrison. Evans sent a pass cross-ice to Morrison, who carried into the zone, got below the left circle and just kinda threw it blind into the slot. Evans arrived at around the same time as Michigan super-prospect Quinn Hughes and got off a one-timer to take the lead with just 3.7 seconds left in regulation.

Notre Dame was suddenly headed to the national championship game, where it will face Minnesota-Duluth in St. Paul tonight at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. And boy did the Fighting Irish need a lot of bounces to get that far.

The Irish rolled through the Big Ten this year, wrapping up its regular-season title more than a month before the postseason began. But once the playoffs rolled around, things weren’t quite so easy. Every single playoff game they’ve played this year has been close. Very close. Perhaps too close.

After being one of the most dominant teams in the country, they’ve been tied with less than a minute to go in the third period of every one of their playoff games. And they’ve somehow won all of them.

In the Big Ten semifinal against Penn State, they won 3-2 on a goal with just 31 seconds left in the third from Jack Jenkins.

The next week, in the Big Ten final against Ohio State, they won 3-2 midway through the first overtime period.

In the NCAA tournament, Jordan Gross scored an overtime goal to push Notre Dame past the round of 16 in a 4-3 win over Michigan Tech.

One night later, Dylan Malmquist was the hero with just 27 seconds left in regulation for a 2-1 win over Providence.

Then Thursday night, it happened again.

It’s been one month straight of games like this for the Irish, but tonight they’ll face their toughest test yet: A team much like themselves.

On the other side of the bracket, Minnesota-Duluth got by narrowly as well, winning all three of their NCAA tournament games by a single goal, one of them in overtime. On Thursday night, they beat Ohio State 2-1, having scored both of their goals in the first three minutes of the game or so, and dominating the rest of that opening period, but otherwise resorted to trying to run out 40 minutes of clock. It worked then, but one can’t be so sure it would work against the Cardiac Kids from South Bend.

Neither Notre Dame nor Minnesota-Duluth feature a lot of high-end talent up front. Good players almost to a man, sure, but there’s nobody here who’s some sort of undisputed superstar of college hockey. No forwards for either team ended up in the Hobey Top 10, and none were probably even all that close.

Evans is the engine for Notre Dame, Riley Tufte or maybe Peter Krieger for Duluth. Krieger has just 30 points in 43 games this year, Tufte 29 in 41. Evans has 45 in 39, a more respectable number, but still nothing to really write home about.

No surprise, then, that Minnesota-Duluth ranks 22nd in goals per game, and Notre Dame 25th. They’re certainly in the upper half of college hockey here, but not by any wide enough margin that you could call them impressive offensively.

Where both really shine is on the back end, with great defenses and, especially lately, elite goaltending. The Irish ranked ninth in the country in goals against per game, and the Bulldogs were sixth. But how they got there has been very, very different.

The Irish basically don’t give up high-quality chances, thanks to a great defensive group that includes Gross, Dennis Gilbert, Bobby Nardella, Matt Hellickson, and Andrew Peeke.

But what they lose for in not allowing Grade-As, they make up for in shot volume, conceding a shocking 35.6 shots a night. Most of them are gobbled up by Cale Morris, who led the country in save percentage this season (.944) and has played almost every game for Notre Dame. He should have been in the Hobey Hat Trick as one of the nation’s three best players, but for reasons passing understanding, goaltenders only get real consideration if there aren’t three high-end forwards to choose from instead.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice, Duluth’s Hunter Shepard has a .924 save percentage, a number which doesn’t exactly pop off the page in college hockey. It was tied for 10th nationally.

However, it’s the second half for Shepard, and really Duluth as a whole, where things have really gotten going. The Bulldogs have a young defense; six freshmen — SIX! FRESHMEN! — all played at least 34 games, but the group is top-lined by draft-eligible 19-year-old leading scorer Scott Perunovich, whom some smart team will take a flyer on in the early third round this year and get a real gem.

But even beyond him, the second half has been great for Mikey Anderson, Dylan Samberg, and Louie Roehl, the last of whom scored in Thursday’s contest.

How about this for a split? Before Christmas, Minnesota-Duluth was 8-9-2, gave up a bunch of goals, and couldn’t get anything going on special teams. Since Christmas, they’re 16-7-1, giving up just 1.6 goals per game, and running some of the best special teams in the country. A lot of that success is down to Shepard, whose pre- and post-Christmas splits are .901 and .939, respectively.

More so than the past few national title games, this really does seem like a total toss-up. Maybe you say Notre Dame has the slight edge because of its offense, but the shots-against numbers aren’t encouraging, and could portend trouble if you let even a low-scoring team like Duluth hang around long enough, especially because they also don’t give up much at the other end.

There’s a reason both these teams are back in the Frozen Four, and why Duluth is playing for the national title, for the second year in a row. These are elite teams with elite talent and excellent goaltending. And like a lot of how their games have gone lately, it looks like the margin is razor-thin.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and is the ONLY HOST of the NCAA hockey podcast “Hockey Goes to College” (the other guy is only his sidekick). His email is here and his Twitter is here.