TOLEDO — No. 4 Notre Dame settled into somewhat unfamiliar territory Friday at Toledo’s Huntington Center to prepare for this weekend’s NCAA regional games.
Notre Dame captain Anders Lee said his team is focusing inward as they gear up for the NCAA Tournament.
The Irish are the Toledo region’s top seed following their CCHA championship victory a week ago in Detroit. They play fourth-seed St. Cloud State Saturday afternoon — a school Notre Dame hasn’t faced on the ice in 15 years and has never played in the postseason. Overcoming the unknown will be important if the Irish plan to move on to their second Frozen Four in the past three seasons.
Notre Dame’s Jeff Jackson has coached in 28 NCAA tournament games in his 14 seasons in college hockey and won 19 of them. He said that experience, along with coaching in one-and-done tournaments with the U.S. junior national team, taught him to worry less about scouting an unfamiliar opponent on short notice.
“Even from my international experience, it’s more important to focus on us than it is the opponent,” Jackson said. “You do have to prepare somewhat for certain situations, whether it be faceoffs or special teams. As far as style of play, really nothing changes for us. We just have to continue to execute the things that we do well.”
What scouting the Irish did do shows an explosive offense team from St. Cloud State. The Huskies(23-15-1) shared the WCHA with Minnesota while averaging 3.4 goals per game. They scored at least five goals in 12 of their 23 wins and at least four goals in 18 of them.
Hobey Baker finalist Drew LeBlanc is the offense’s main catalyst. The senior captain currently leads the nation with 37 assists and is fifth in the country with 50 points overall. He was the WCHA’s player of the year this season.
“They have a great offensive team,” Irish defenseman Sam Calabrese said. “You have to play these guys really tight. If you give them time and space to make plays they’re going to beat you.”
Notre Dame, meanwhile, has used defense to carry its recent hot streak. The Irish haven’t lost in their last nine games and are averaging 1.55 goals against during that stretch. During their CCHA playoff run, there was only one game where they gave up more than one goal.
St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko compared the Irish to Wisconsin, who recently knocked the Huskies out of the WHCA postseason tournament with a 4-1 win. He too said he was more concerned with how his own team would look Saturday afternoon.
“Really at this time of the year big time players have to make big time plays at big time moments,” Motzko said. “We really just get our guys up and running and turn these guys loose tomorrow. That’s really it. It’s fairly simple.”
Along with LeBlanc, Motzko’s top players are forwards Jonny Brodzinski and Nic Dowd. Brodzinski leads the team and is third in the WCHA with 21 goals this season. He also leads the team with a +27 plus/minus rating. Dowd finishes that top line and brings 14 goals and 25 assists into the NCAA Tournament.
Jackson said he thought the Toledo region might be the toughest in the country this year in his opinion. The winner of Saturday’s Notre Dame-St. Cloud State will face the winner of No. 5 Miami, who split a two-game series with the Irish earlier this season and won the CCHA regular season title, and No. 8 Minnesota State.
“At this point in the season any team can win,” said Irish captain Anders Lee. “There’s 15 other teams in this tournament that don’t care about what we do or how we play. They care about themselves work hard and battle, and that’s what we have to do.”
Saturday’s game is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. It will be televised locally in South Bend on WHME and regionally of Fox Sports North.