As Notre Dame, Minnesota Duluth meet for Frozen Four title, little separates the sides

Coach Scott Sandelin runs Minnesota Duluth’s practice on Friday (photo: Melissa Wade).

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Team of Destiny versus the Cardiac Kids.

It seems like an apt description for the Frozen Four’s two finalists, Minnesota Duluth and Notre Dame. But it’s not too far-fetched to have to ask which term describes which team.

Sure, the Fighting Irish have given their coach near-heart attacks in the postseason, winning five straight games in either the final minute of regulation or overtime.

And the Bulldogs, the final at-large team to qualify for the NCAA tournament, making the field by one ten-thousandth of a point, have fought through three straight one-goal games themselves to reach a second straight national title game, this one less that two hours from campus.

Maybe, just maybe, Destiny and Cardiac are interchangeable terms for these clubs.

What makes it most fitting is the fact that these two teams feel like interchangeable clubs.

Neither has a hot-shot goal scorer and Saturday will be just the second time since 2000 (2013, Yale vs. Quinnipiac) that the national title game competitors are without a 20-goal scorer.

Both teams had to answer an almost identical question in goal to start the season, replacing stalwart goaltenders that carried their respective team’s water all last year with backups in Cale Morris at Notre Dame and Hunter Shepard at Minnesota Duluth. Each seized the starting job when given a chance.

And both teams have the ability to play absolute, shut-down defense.

What that sets up is a championship game matchup where there simply isn’t a lot to differentiate the two opponents.

“They play a fast game. They play transitionally,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. “They have their depths. They’re spread out like we are as far as their offensive depth. But they’ve got some talented young defensemen and their goaltending is solidified, which probably helped push them over the top to get to this point. I’m not sure how much difference there is [between the teams.]”

Notre Dame practices on Friday (photo: Melissa Wade).

Jackson’s counterpart, Scott Sandelin, agreed.

“I think they’ve got a real good group of forwards,” Sandelin said of the Irish. “Obviously, their goaltending has been outstanding. Their D corps — another team that doesn’t have a lot of holes.

“They’ve been in a ton of one-goal games as well. They find ways to win them. They don’t panic. They just keep playing their game.”

If there is one major difference between the two clubs, it is the experience. Sure, both of these clubs were in the Frozen Four a year ago, but Notre Dame posts a roster filled with upperclassmen, while Duluth is led by a defensive corps featuring five freshmen and a sophomore.

“[They’re] an older team that’s probably a little bit on a mission,” said Sandelin. “I think they learned something last year in the semifinal game (a 6-1 loss to eventual national champion Denver).”

Bo Brauer, one of the five seniors on the Notre Dame roster, agreed.

“We came into it probably being a little more satisfied than we should have in that we were stunned beating UMass Lowell in overtime [in the regional final],” Brauer said of last year’s Frozen Four appearance. “And I think not having as much experience under the bright lights last year hurt us.

“Taking that as motivation to get us back to here really has helped us. And, again, being calm and just staying positive throughout, it has really helped us.”

The main question remaining is what to expect from Saturday’s title game.

Given the stingy defenses, a low-scoring tilt is highly likely. To get to the finals, Minnesota Duluth has allowed just four goals in three games. The Irish haven’t been as shut down, allowing three goals to both Michigan Tech in the tournament opener and to Michigan on Thursday.

“I think both teams will work hard,” said Sandelin. “I think right now we’re playing pretty well defensively. And it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s another 2-1 hockey game.

“We can all surprise you and have a 5-4 game. But I’m just again expecting it to be a real tight, lower-scoring game.”