Minnesota men’s hockey prepares for NCAA regionals

The Gophers return to tournament play with a top seed after missing it last year.

Gophers forward Mike Szmatula looks for a passing outlet against Michigan on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017 at Mariucci Arena.

Carter Jones, Daily File Photo

Gophers forward Mike Szmatula looks for a passing outlet against Michigan on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017 at Mariucci Arena.

Drew Cove

A future Big Ten rivalry in the making takes some of its first steps Saturday.

No. 5 Minnesota (23-11-3) begins the NCAA tournament against No. 12 Notre Dame (21-11-5), which will join the Big Ten next season, Saturday.

“[Notre Dame is] a lot like our own team,” said head coach Don Lucia. “We’ve played them eight times … in the last four years, all the games were close, and that’s obviously the expectation this weekend.”

The Gophers are back in the NCAA Tournament this season as a No. 1 seed after not receiving a bid last year. They begin play Saturday afternoon in the Northeast regional in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Lucia said Sunday that practice would ramp up into the end of the week, and the Gophers are well-aware of the situation.

“We’re focusing on the details,” said forward Mike Szmatula. “Doing a lot of film, focusing on the little things … Like it’s been in the past, a faceoff loss for a goal can end a team’s season, and nobody wants to have that.”

The four teams in the Northeast regional are Minnesota, Notre Dame, Cornell and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

If the Gophers make it past the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, they would face the winner of Cornell and UML Sunday with a Frozen Four trip on the line.

“We’re in a really good regional,” Lucia said. “All three are really good teams, and any of the four teams could come out.”

Here’s a breakdown of each team in Manchester.

Minnesota (1-Seed):

A high-powered offense mixed with goaltending that has been strong in second half of the season.

The Gophers have an experienced leadership group of seniors and the Big Ten’s second leading scorer in forward Tyler Sheehy. The defense will have to adjust without Ryan Lindgren, who suffered an injury late in the season.

Notre Dame (4-Seed):

The Fighting Irish have two outstanding players in forward Anders Bjork and goaltender Cal Petersen.

Bjork has 47 points in 35 games this season and is tied for 11th in scoring in the Hockey East conference this season.

Petersen has been solid in net all season, with a .930 save percentage, a 2.05 goals against average and six shutouts in 36 games played.

UML (2-Seed):

The River Hawks, one of the hottest teams in college hockey, are 11-1 since February 3 and won Hockey East.

The River Hawks have six players with ten or more goals, including two players — forwards Joe Gambardella and C.J. Smith — who have 50 or more points in 39 games played.

Cornell (3-Seed):

The Big Red made it to the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference championship game, only to lose to Harvard.

Cornell’s senior goaltender, Mitch Gillam, played almost 2,000 minutes this season, boasting a record of 21-7-5 with three shutouts. Another player, forward Mitch Vanderlaan, leads all Cornell players with 28 points in 34 games played.