Minnesota Freshman Kyle Rau (photo courtesy of Gopher Athletics/Paul Rovnak)
It's fitting that the only college hockey game this weekend featuring two top-five teams is the "Hall of Fame game."
After losing to Northeastern 3-2 in the Mariucci Classic championship game last weekend, the third-ranked University of Minnesota hockey team (15-6-1, 11-3-0 WCHA) plays only one game this weekend against fifth-ranked Notre Dame (12-6-1, 8-3-3-0 CCHA) in Mariucci Arena as part of the annual U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game. The game raises money for the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minnesota and does count towards the 34 game NCAA limit.
It's the first one-game series for the Gophers since participating in the 2006 Hall of Fame game against Maine, which they lost 3-1 before embarking on a 22 game unbeaten streak that season.
The Fighting Irish enter Saturday's game having turned things around on the heels of a Frozen Four appearance in 2011. Notre Dame came into the season with a young team full of high expectations - they were ranked #1 in the preseason polls - but lost four straight games after Thanksgiving before winning their last two against Ferris State and Boston University.
The Irish have been led this season by sophomore T.J. Tynan, who is following up his 54 point freshman season (it led to him being drafted by Columbus in the 2011 NHL Draft) with 27 points in 20 games. He returns Saturday with defenseman Stephen Johns after spending the last couple weeks playing for Team USA in the under-20 World Junior Hockey Championships.
The two played alongside Gopher players Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau, who also return for Minnesota after missing the Mariucci Classic.
Tynan and Johns playing against their USA teammates is only one of many interwoven storylines between the two teams. Notre Dame's leading goal scorer is sophomore Anders Lee (14 G - 8 A) who played high school hockey at Edina with Gophers' redshirt sophomore Zach Budish. Minnesota head coach Don Lucia is an Irish alumnus who skated for Notre Dame. His son Mario (a Minnesota Wild draftee) will be heading to South Bend next season; following in the footsteps of Gophers assistant coach Mike Guentzel's son Ryan.
But the best storyline between Minnesota and Notre Dame is a family affair between two brothers. Sophomore Nate Condon faces off against his older brother Nick, a senior defenseman for the Fighting Irish, for the first time in his collegiate career.
The Gophers, however, should not need any additional motivation to get up to play Notre Dame because it is Minnesota's last chance to improve their non-conference record. At 4-3-1 in non-conference play, a win over a top-five opponent will help them in the Pairwise rankings which determine the seeds and teams in the NCAA Tournament. The Fighting Irish are currently fourth in the Pairwise while Minnesota is sixth.
The Gophers should have the advantage in goal. Although they haven't gotten the same super-human goaltending from Kent Patterson compared to the beginning of the season, he is holding his own and can steal games compared to Notre Dame goalie Mike Johnson and his .889 save percentage.
It will be interesting, meanwhile, to see the battle between Notre Dame's defense and Minnesota's offense. The Fighting Irish blue line consists of upperclassmen Sam Calabrese and Sean Lorenz (a Minnesota Wild draft pick) and freshman Robbie Russo, who leads all defensive players with 11 points. The Gophers, with five players averaging more than a point per game, have the scoring depth to break down teams but Notre Dame is not a pushover. They have played their best defensive hockey in the third period - a time when Minnesota has outscored opponents 36-12 - so something has to give.
Another key for Minnesota beating Notre Dame is playing disciplined hockey. After taking twelve penalties in their loss to Northeastern, the Gophers cannot afford to give the Fighting Irish power play extended opportunities. Notre Dame leads the CCHA, scoring on 20.18% of their chances with the man advantage, and is more lethal than the Huskies were.
The team might have gotten the message this week after they were bag skated, but the second half's success will depend on playing more games like Niagara (where the Gophers went nearly two periods without a penalty) rather than Northeastern. Regardless, a game against fifth-ranked Notre Dame will be the first of a series of tough tests for the Minnesota Golden Gophers as they look to play the second half of the season as good as the first.
Saturday's Hall of Fame game against Notre Dame at Mariucci Arena begins at 7 PM CST and will air on BTN. ESPN1500 has the radio coverage.