Denver and Notre Dame taking lacrosse rivalry to the Frozen Four

Photo courtesy DU Athletics

CHICAGO – “Notre Dame and Denver. It is what it is…it was all we thought it was going to be,” DU lacrosse head coach Bill Tierney said with a laugh a few weeks after his team beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish with a last-second goal from Connor Cannizzaro. Denver’s win was just the latest in a long streak of close, exciting games between the two top five men’s lacrosse programs. This Thursday evening, though, the rivalry between the two schools hits the ice on college hockey’s biggest stage at the Frozen Four.

While recent Denver-Notre Dame lacrosse matchups have been exciting, often with last minute and overtime results, the DU hockey team is hoping for a less exciting matchup tomorrow night. And you can bet they’ll be prepared for their Big Ten Hockey East foe.

The last time the two teams met on the ice was just after the New Year last season, on January 1 & 2 in Denver. Over the course of the two ties that weekend, Irish goalie Cal Petersen made an astounding 92 saves. The Pioneers, of course, are hoping to avoid a repeat performance from Notre Dame’s star netminder and DU head coach Jim Montgomery knows, in theory, how to beat him.

“It’s the same as any goaltender – take away his eyes,” Montgomery said. “Get to the net front. There’s going to be rebounds if you take away his eyes.”

That strategy has worked well to this point for Denver, but with a talented goalie like Cal Petersen, it’s not always that straightforward. Thus far in 2016-17, Petersen has posted a 23-11-5 record with a 2.13 GAA and .929 SV%. Hardly pedestrian numbers. Denver took the same tact last year against Petersen and still only managed to get three pucks past him in 130+ minutes of hockey.

These are two completely different teams, though and there is plenty of reason to believe that Denver won’t have an issue finding the back of the net. For one thing, the 2016-17 Pioneers are better than the 2015-16 Pioneers. Beyond that, Denver didn’t catch Notre Dame during their long winning streak last year. This year, with the exception of the hiccup against North Dakota at the Frozen Faceoff, the Pioneers’ offensive prowess is, in a word, impressive.

“I think the biggest thing for our group is that last year in the first half of the year, I think we averaged like 1.6 goals a game,” Montgomery said. “In the second half last year, after the weekend we played them, I think we averaged over 4. And we’ve done the same thing this year. The first half, we were 1.75, and in the second half, we’re 4.25 this year. We’re better than we were last year, and we’re scoring more than we were last year when we faced him.”

Finding a way to get Petersen off his game is a major key for the Pioneers, but they’re going to have to focus on more than just the opposing goalie if they’re going to advance to the National Championship Game on Saturday.

“I think you see it in the regionals,” Montgomery said of the advantage of playing in the NCHC. “For us two years in a row, when we’re used to playing at the NCHC pace, we can jump teams early. When we got to this point last year at the Frozen Four, we were playing [conference foe North Dakota], and it was a track meet. It was a great game. So hopefully, Notre Dame’s not ready for our pace.”

Denver was good at scoring early in their games against Michigan Tech and Penn State in first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, so the Pioneers will certainly be looking for a similar effort early in tomorrow night’s game. If they can have that early success, they’ll likely be able to avoid the late excitement that has been featured in the programs’ recent matchups on the lacrosse field.

The last time the two schools met in a National Semifinal game, Denver needed overtime to beat Notre Dame before going on to beat Maryland in the 2015 NCAA Lacrosse National Championship. As thrilling as that matchup was, Denver Hockey will be looking to avoid such drama tomorrow night as they continue to work towards their eighth national title.