SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When the Minnesota Gophers face Notre Dame this weekend in a vitally-important Big Ten road series, it will mark the eighth and ninth times that Bob Motzko’s new team has faced the Fighting Irish head-to-head.
Still, when Irish coach Jeff Jackson talks about Motzko and the Gophers, there’s an extra bit of familiarity there, which comes from hard lessons Jackson learned in the last decade. In 2013 and again in 2014, the Irish were matched up in the NCAA tournament against St. Cloud State teams coached by Motzko, and both times the Huskies won.
In 2013, Notre Dame was the top seed in the Midwest Regional in Toledo, Ohio, but the Irish were upended by 5-1 by Motzko’s Huskies, who had slipped into the 16-team field with an at-large bid. A day later, the Huskies beat Miami (Ohio) to make their first (and so far, only) Frozen Four trip.
A year later, at the West Regional in St. Paul, the Huskies beat the higher-seeded Irish in overtime, before falling to Minnesota a day later. It’s a different time, and Motzko is behind the bench for a different team in a different conference, but Jackson speaks highly of his counterpart on the visitors’ bench every time he has an opportunity.
“Minnesota has been playing really well. Just like last year in the second half of the year they took off. Bob Motzko took that program over last year and it took half a year to get his guys to buy in to what he wanted them to do,” Jackson said after the Irish practiced on Wednesday. “This year was kind of like a repeat of that because they lost so many guys and had so many young guys it was almost a repeat performance. It took them half a year to buy in, but once they start playing the way he coaches they become very difficult to beat, because they don’t beat themselves, generally.”
Motzko, for his part, offers very similar compliments when talking about Jackson and his Notre Dame program.
“They’re a very responsible team. We know Notre Dame is never going to beat themselves,” Motzko said this week. “They’re playing awfully well right now, and the big thing is they’re scoring a lot of goals right now, in their last two series ... Jeff’s as good as there is in the business. That’s our league, you just roll from one to the next.”
The Irish come into this weekend’s series in fifth place in the Big Ten, three points back of the Gophers and fighting for home ice in the playoffs, which goes to the league’s top four teams. It is the third season in the conference for Notre Dame, which won a regular season title and two playoff titles in its first two years as Big Ten members.
After a 7-0-1 start to the season (which included a win and a tie in Minneapolis in November), the Irish went into a two-month funk and sit at 12-11-5 overall. But Jackson’s team appears to be righting the ship lately, averaging four goals per game in the last two weekend series, and coming off a win and a tie at Penn State.
Friday’s game is a 6 p.m. start and will be televised by NBC Sports Network. Saturday’s rematch has a 5 p.m. opening faceoff. It will be televised by NBC Sports Chicago and NBC Sports Philadelphia+, available for those who purchase a regional sports package via their cable or satellite provider. Both games will be streamed by NBC Sports in the United States and by TSN in Canada.