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Hockey: Irish defeat Merrimack in overtime to advance

Sam Werner | Sunday, March 27, 2011

MANCHESTER, N.H. — With 15:00 left in overtime of Notre Dame’s NCAA first round matchup with Merrimack, Irish coach Jeff Jackson called his team’s only timeout. The Warriors were dominating the Irish in overtime, peppering Notre Dame netminder Mike Johnson with shot after shot. Nothing had slipped by Johnson yet, but it seemed only inevitable.

“I just told our guys to calm down,” Jackson said of the timeout. “We were turning pucks over. Merrimack’s got three lines. Any one of them can score. It was just a matter of time.”

Eighteen seconds later, the Irish were swarming freshman wing Anders Lee, who had just scored his second goal of the game to give Notre Dame a 4-3 win and put the team one win away from the second Frozen Four in program history.

With the puck caroming behind the Merrimack net, Lee fought off a Merrimack defender, forced a turnover at the left side of the cage and poked the puck through the pads of Warrior netminder Joe Cannata.

“The [Merrimack] defenseman cut up pretty quick there,” Lee said. “I took a last ditch effort, swung at it, and next thing I knew it was in the back of the net.”

It took a two-goal comeback just to get to overtime for the Irish, who trailed 3-1 after Merrimack’s Rhett Bly scored 2:58 into the second period. Lee scored his first goal of the game 13:29 into the stanza to cut the lead to one. Skating down the left side, Lee fired a high wrist shot from the top of the left circle that deflected off Cannata’s glove and into the back of the net.

Even though they were still down a goal, Irish players said the score made them believe that they could come back and win the game.

“Anders’ [first] goal just really boosted our confidence,” Johnson said.

That improved confidence came to fruition 5:32 into the final period, when junior Billy Maday evened the score for the Irish. Fighting for a loose puck in front of the net, several Notre Dame players took whacks at the puck, but Maday was the one to put it past Cannata.

“Whether it was me or somebody else, we knew that we had to be in front [of the net] to get that tying goal,” Maday said.

The win was impressive, considering only five players in the starting lineup for Notre Dame had ever played in an NCAA tournament game before. On big stages earlier in the season — such as Notre Dame’s two losses in the CCHA Championship in Detroit last weekend — Jackson said his team played too uptight. Against Merrimack, though, the mood was different.

“I think we were a lot calmer,” Maday said. “We were confident in the locker room.”

Jackson said he and the team had a “serious discussion” about staying loose on the big stage this weekend, a quality that can be especially important for a young team.

Even when the Irish went down 2-0 in the first, Jackson said he sensed they had the ability to get back in it, pointing to Notre Dame’s several come-from-behind wins earlier in the season.

“We get down a goal or two and we still have the ability to come back, and that’s that carefree mentality,” Jackson said. “When they’re playing loose I don’t consider us to be out of the game.”

Sure enough, after Ryan Flanigan scored a shorthanded goal 16:00 into the opening period to put the Warriors up 2-0, the Irish weren’t out of it. With the heavily pro-Merrimack Verizon Wireless Arena rocking, senior Calle Ridderwall responded with a goal on a beautiful give-and-go with Maday to cut the lead in half and keep Notre Dame in the game.

“That was a complete momentum switch from one direction to the other,” Jackson said.

Notre Dame advances to play No. 4-seeded New Hampshire — which beat top-seeded Miami (Ohio) in the first round — Sunday at 8 p.m. in the East regional final. A win would send the Irish to Saint Paul, Minn. and their second Frozen Four in four years. Notre Dame is 1-1 all-time in regional finals, falling 2-1 to Michigan State in 2007 and beating the Spartans 3-1 in 2008.