Who: Notre Dame (19-10-7) vs. Michigan (24-7-5)
When: 5:30 p.m. tonight
Where: U.S. Bank Arena; Cincinnati, Ohio (7,221)
Radio: 99.9 FM (WHFB)
Most of the Notre Dame roster hasn’t played in this rivalry.
Only the senior class has faced Michigan, and those memories are good ones. The Irish won all five games against the Wolverines during the 2012-13 season, including the final Central Collegiate Hockey Association championship game.
After that victory, Michigan moved into the newly formed Big Ten hockey conference. Notre Dame shifted to Hockey East as the CCHA disbanded. They haven’t played since.
That changes at 5:30 p.m. today in Cincinnati to open the NCAA Tournament. North Dakota faces Northeastern at 2 p.m. in the other Midwest Regional matchup with winners squaring off Saturday night.
“We’re kinda the only ones with the memory,” said senior defenseman Andy Ryan. “But the Notre Dame-Michigan thing is just kinda synonymous with college sports. I think it was definitely the team we were hoping to play when we were kinda looking at the bracket projections. Everyone is excited for it.”
These teams also have a little NCAA Tournament history.
Notre Dame advanced to its first national championship game in 2008 with an overtime win over Michigan in the Frozen Four in Denver. It’s perhaps this biggest win in program history, a 5-4 thriller that ended with a Calle Ridderwall goal.
Ryan sat in the stands at the Pepsi Center for that game to see his older brother, Ben, an Irish forward at the time. He watched his brother’s team build a 3-0 lead in the first period only to have the Wolverines rally to tie it early in the third period.
Each team scored again before Ridderwall broke the tie in overtime, toppling the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.
“It was a funny game,” said head coach Jeff Jackson. “Overtime, the fourth line and a left winger from Sweden that didn’t play every game during the year and probably only had three goals I think on the season scored two goals in that game. That was our fourth line on the ice. That’s been kinda the trademark of our team. When we’re a good fourth line team is when we’re usually the best.”
Common history might help Notre Dame take a little extra notice of its opponent.
Some of the numbers should assist too.
Michigan enters the tournament as the highest scoring team in the country, averaging 4.89 goals per game. Its top line — Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte — account for a dizzying 183 points. They’re the top three individual scorers in the country. Connor and Motte have 35 and 31 goals, respectively.
Not only that, their power play is tops nationally with a 31.8 percent success rate.
Sure, Notre Dame players may have wanted to rekindle their rivalry with Michigan in the postseason. But there’s also the realization their hands will be full.
“We haven’t watched a ton of film on them,” Ryan said. “It’s been mostly about us. But obviously they’re a highly offensive team. We’re gonna have our hands full. But I think the way we play, if we possess the puck like we should without turning it over in high danger areas of the ice, we feel that we can get a lot of opportunities. While they’re a great offensive team, I think they’re pretty lax defensively. That’s my understanding.”
Statistically speaking, Michigan is a middle-of-the-road defensive team, allowing three goals per game. Its penalty kill is subpar at 79.8 percent.
If Notre Dame can take advantage of those shortcomings it could net the Irish their first NCAA Tournament victory in five years when Jackson got back to the Frozen Four. Notre Dame missed the tournament in 2012 and 2015. It was eliminated in the opening round by St. Cloud State in 2013 and 2014.
That means even Notre Dame’s seniors haven’t won a NCAA Tournament game. It’s something they hope to change tonight at the expense of Michigan.
“I think we’ve thought about it a little bit,” Ryan said. “I think we understand that as long as you get in the tournament then really any team can win. Anything can happen. I think more the focus was getting there again and getting another opportunity. As we’ve seen over the past few years, we just know this, as long as you get in you have as good a chance as anyone.”