The Notre Dame hockey team arrived in St. Paul on Friday afternoon after a one-hour flight from South Bend as they begin preparations for the NCAA Hockey West Regional on Saturday afternoon.
The Irish practiced at the Xcel Energy Center from 3:15 to 4:15 p.m. in their final tune-up before facing St. Cloud State at 8:00 p.m. (CT) on Saturday night in the second game of the regional. The University of Minnesota will square off against Robert Morris University in the first game at 4:30 p.m. (CT).
Notre Dame enters the regional as the No. 2 seed with a 23-14-2 overall record while the Huskies of St. Cloud State are the No. 3 seed with a 21-10-5 mark. The Irish advanced to the Hockey East semifinals were they were defeated by eventual Hockey East champion, Massachusetts-Lowell, 4-0. The Huskies were the regular-season champs of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) in its first season. They lost in the NCHC quarterfinals to Miami University, two games to none.
Notre Dame and St. Cloud State are no strangers to each other in NCAA Tournament action as the two schools met last season in the Midwest Regional held at Toledo, Ohio. The Huskies handed the Irish a 5-1 loss on the way to their first-ever trip to the Frozen Four.
Notre Dame and St. Cloud State have met 11 times in the all-time series with the Huskies leading 6-5-0.
The opening game of the regional features the top-seed, Minnesota, against Robert Morris of Atlantic Hockey. The host Gophers were 25-6-6 overall and were the regular-season champs of the Big 10 Conference in its first season. They lost in the conference tournament, losing to Ohio State in the semifinal game, 3-2 in overtime. Robert Morris was 19-17-5 on the year and finished fifth in Atlantic Hockey. The Colonials won Atlantic Hockey by defeating Connecticut, two games to none in the quarterfinals and then knocked off Niagara, 5-4 in overtime, and Canisius, 7-4, in the tournament.
Minnesota is the No. 1 seed in both the West Regional and the entire tournament. The winners of the two games on Saturday will meet on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. (CT) on Sunday, March 30.
Saturday's Notre Dame-St. Cloud State will be televised live on ESPNU with Clay Matvick and Sean Ritchlin calling the action. The Minnesota-Robert Morris game will be shown on ESPN 2. Sunday's regional title game will be shown on ESPNU.
Notre Dame is making its sixth appearance since 2007 and seventh overall in the 46-year history of the program. All-time, Notre Dame is 6-6 in NCAA games.
St. Cloud State is making its 10th trip to the NCAA Championship since 1989 and second consecutive after advancing to the Frozen Four last season. Overall, they are 3-10 in NCAA action.
Following each team's practice session on Friday, the coaches and players met with the media. Here's what Irish head coach Jeff Jackson and seniors Jeff Costello and Steven Summerhays had to say followed by St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko and players Nic Dowd and Kevin Gravel:
"Like all the teams, we are excited to be here and obviously it's a great honor. We always look forward to coming back to this great city and playing in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area."
On his team's season so far...
"Our first half was a little rough. We had a number of key guys out of the lineup for several weeks, and it was a little bit challenging. I think that the jump into the Hockey East was a double threat for us. We had an adjustment period playing new teams that we've never faced before. We can prepare as much as we like, but until you actually play teams, it's always a little different. It's no different than last year playing against St. Cloud. You get surprised a little bit. It applies to both teams, but it was a little different for us because we had to prepare for 10 new teams as opposed to just one. It was a challenge. The second half, I thought we started turning the corner. Our seniors had a lot to do with that. I think that they helped lead the way. They were instrumental in getting us back on track, and everybody got healthy. We started to have some real success when it came February and into March."
On the development of defenseman Stephen Johns over his career...
"Stephen's a work in progress. He still is. He's a tremendous talent for his size. He's a really good skater and he's got good hands. When he's tuned in 100 percent in the right mode, he's probably the best defenseman in college hockey. He's found a way to do that on a more consistent basis this year. He is a physical force, but he also has the skill and ability to do more than that. He always has to remember to keep it simple sometimes. When he plays his game and stays within himself, he's as good a defenseman as I've ever had in college hockey."
"I think all of our seniors are leaders in different ways, whether it be speaking up in the locker room or how to lead on and off the ice. As a goalie, I'm not a big talkative guy in the locker room. I kind of do my own thing and try to lead by example with the way I play on the ice and how I compete on the ice, and just kind of be that rock for everyone."
On St. Cloud State's offense...
"They get a lot of guys to the net. Playing them last year, they were very opportunistic on their chances they did get. They've got some skilled guys--Jimmy Murray, Nic Dowd. That whole top line, they're a threatening line if you let them play their game. We need to play puck possession in their zone to take away from that."
On last year's loss to St. Cloud State as motivation...
"With such a large senior class, it's kind of setting in that this is our last go at it. It's kind of fitting that we get St. Cloud again. But I think we're more focused on putting a better showing on and playing Irish hockey than getting revenge or anything like that. We didn't like how we played last year. We didn't think we gave our best effort, and that's what we're here this weekend to do."
On the keys to the game on Saturday...
"First off, we've got to stay out of the penalty box. ...And our game starts with our defense. ...The more we have the puck, the less chance they get."
ST. CLOUD STATE
Bob Motzko, St. Cloud State Head Coach
"We're definitely for the opportunity back in the NCAA Tournament. It never gets old. The kids put in an extreme amount of hard work starting last summer, through the whole year. ...You know by the computer that you're in, but still, when you see your name pop up on the screen on Selection Sunday, there's great excitement within our program. We're in our home state. There's a lot of good and there's some bad with that--the distractions--but that's all good. Our fans can get down here. We didn't give them the opportunity to go down to Minneapolis last week, so we're anticipating that they'll be excited to be down here and follow us this week."
On focusing on the first game...
"This tournament really, I think, gets started after Game 1. You've got to win to get momentum going and to be part of the tournament. It's a terrible feeling to lose the first game and then go home. Our guys have experienced both ends of that, our older guys have. But our young guys now know the feeling of winning Game 1, and that is 100 percent of the concentration on our side, is playing Notre Dame and being ready for that game."
Nic Dowd, St. Cloud State Senior Forward
On the difference between last year's and this year's NCAA Tournament berths...
"I guess I'd be lying if you say you know exactly what you're in for. Having been there one year, does that make a bigger difference than coming in last year? I don't think so. I think Kevin (Gravel) said it best in a previous interview. You've got to expect the unexpected. That always seems to happen here in the NCAA Regional. We're happy to be here, excited for tomorrow night and that's what our mind's focused on."
On the sharpness of practice after an extra week off of games...
"It's been good. I think Coach has done a good job managing not only the length of our practices, but the days that we choose to practice on and days off, and workouts, et cetera. But guys have been sharp, eager. It left a pretty bitter taste in our mouth when we didn't make it to the conference tournament. ...But from the standpoint of not having a bye the second half of the season, it felt pretty good for our guys to get a break."
On Notre Dame's offense...
"I think the big thing is they have 10 seniors up there. They're guys who have been there before, especially guys like (T.J.) Tynan and (Bryan) Rust. They're guys you have to be aware of when they're on the ice, and they're guys that are very dangerous with the puck and they have the ability to make plays. Notre Dame's playing very well right now, and their forwards are a big reason for that. Our D know what we're up against, and we're ready for the challenge."
On going into practice with a known opponent, unlike the previous week...
"They guys are anxious. It gets to be a long time when you take a bye week. Obviously, that has its positives. But especially when it's a tournament of this magnitude, guys get kind of a nervous energy about them, kind of excited. I know once last night came around the guys were fired up to be out of town and get into St. Paul, get settled in and get on the ice today."