Hockey: Irish advance to Frozen Four
Sam Werner | Monday, March 28, 2011
MANCHESTER, N.H. — For just the second time in the program’s 43-year history, Notre Dame will play on college hockey’s biggest stage.
The Irish defeated New Hampshire 2-1 Sunday in the Northeast Regional final to advance to the 2011 Frozen Four and a date with Minnesota-Duluth in the national semifinals.
“We are thrilled to death,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “With this group, being so young … I credit the leaders and the bond they created amongst themselves. It’s an exciting opportunity and we’re very much looking forward to it.”
Freshman defenseman Stephen Johns and junior right wing Billy Maday lit the lamp for the Irish, both on assists from sophomore center Riley Sheahan, while sophomore netminder Mike Johnson buoyed Notre Dame with 37 saves. Johns, Maday and Johnson — along with freshman left wing Anders Lee — were named to the all-regional team, and Johnson was named the regional’s most outstanding player.
“Michael’s biggest challenge is he wants to do well so bad that he ends up thinking about it too much,” Jackson said. “It’s more about just getting into the game and stopping the puck. You don’t think during the game, you just play, and tonight he just played.”
The Irish jumped out to a 1-0 lead at 7:26 of the opening period. After a flurry of New Hampshire pressure, the Irish countered the other way. Sheahan fed Johns at the left point, and the freshman fired a laser that beat New Hampshire goalie Matt Di Girolamo.
Maday gave the Irish a 2-0 lead at the tail end of the second period. With time ticking down, Sheahan fed Maday at the left side of the Wildcat net. Maday moved the puck from skate to stick and lifted a backhander over Di Girolamo at 19:55 of the middle stanza.
“I saw Riley had the puck and I saw an opportunity to go to the net,” Maday said. “[Sheahan] made a great pass and I was able to put it in.”
Both goals came after prolonged bouts of New Hampshire attack, and Maday attributed his team’s ability to bounce back to its cool demeanor.
“We recognize there’s a lot of little plays on the ice and we can’t get overexcited or down no matter what happens,” Maday said.
From there, it was all about clamping down on defense. Even though Johnson was the star in net, he said his teammates’ work on defense made his job easy.
“I have to credit [my teammates],” Johnson said. “They were unbelievable tonight with the back pressure.”
New Hampshire’s Mike Sislo cut Notre Dame’s lead in half with a goal at 13:37 of the final period. The Wildcats had a golden opportunity to tie the score with a power play at 4:03 remaining in the third, but the Irish penalty kill rose to the challenge. A penalty to New Hampshire’s Mike Beck with less than two minutes remaining prevented the Wildcats from taking advantage of an extra attacker in the final minutes, and Notre Dame held on for the win.
“[Notre Dame’s defense was] great all weekend,” Sislo said. “Their whole team made it tough to get it on net and when we did [Johnson] did a great job of putting it in the corner or sucking it up.”
The trip to the Frozen Four seems unlikely for a team that just last weekend was outscored by a combined score of 10-4 in two games against Miami (Ohio) and Michigan at the CCHA Championship at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Jackson said he talked with Notre Dame sports psychologist Mick Franco over the week about how to properly prepare his exceptionally young team to play on the big stage.
“As I’ve said all season, especially the last half, it’s been a work in progress with so many young guys,” Jackson said. “How they prepare themselves to play, how they get ready.”
Maday said he thought Notre Dame’s struggles a week ago gave the team the wake-up call it needed.
“Losing two games at Joe Louis Arena was an eye opener,” Maday said. “And I think we realized we didn’t want our season to end.”
For Irish seniors Calle Ridderwall, Ben Ryan and Ryan Guentzel, the trip to the Frozen Four will be a matter of finishing what they started their freshman year. In 2008 — the only other time the Irish have advanced to the Frozen Four — they lost to Boston College in the national championship game.
“It’s special, definitely,” Ridderwall said. “Starting college with a Frozen Four and then staying until your senior year and being in the same position. It’s definitely very exciting and I think if we keep our eyes on the prize we can do anything in the Frozen Four.”
The Irish will have a week off before traveling to Saint Paul, Minn. to take on Minnesota-Duluth on April 7 with a spot in the national championship game on the line.