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Hockey: Irish fall to Spartans in regional final

Kyle Cassily | Monday, March 26, 2007

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Irish coach Jeff Jackson sat alone at the post-game press conference table minutes after Notre Dame fell 2-1 to Michigan State in a loss that put a premature period to the end of a season no one expected, and after it was over, no one wanted to see end.Jackson looked at the empty seats to his left where his players usually sat and told those assembled in Grand Rapids for No. 1 Notre Dame’s second NCAA Tournament appearance Saturday that none would be leaving the locker room anytime soon.”They’re all in there crying,” he said. “A year ago, some [cried], but probably a lot of the same ones. It means a lot more to play for Notre Dame now.”The No. 1 Irish, two years removed from a five-win season, came up one victory short of a berth into the Frozen Four when the third-seeded Spartans scored two power-play goals and surrendered only 20 shots to capture the Midwest regional championship. The Irish loss came one night after they took a marathon 3-2 double-overtime win over Alabama-Huntsville in the regional’s opening game – the first Tournament win for the Irish in school history.”Yeah … yeah, they’re a great team,” said Jackson, who had refrained all season from calling the Irish ‘great’. “Being the pioneers to take this program to places it’s never seen or known before, yeah, they’re a great team.”As far as what it takes, the price to pay, they’re right up there at the very top.”The Irish (32-7-3) encountered a Michigan State team that was a day removed from a 5-1 crushing of second-seeded Boston University in its opening round Tournament game. And the Spartans continued to execute immaculately on the defensive side of the puck for two and a half periods against the Irish.Notre Dame did not score until 14:52 into the third period when right wing Evan Rankin redirected a shot from the point into the net from defenseman Brett Blatchford to cut the Spartans lead to 2-1. From there, the Irish began to generate consecutive scoring chances for nearly the first time all game on Michigan State goalie Jeff Lerg (19 saves).”They’re a never-quit group, and that’s why they’re taking it hard right now” Jackson said of his team’s late-game surge.Then came Notre Dame’s last-ditch attempt to tie the game and force an overtime period.Irish left wing Garrett Regan barreled down the right side of the ice at full speed with less than three minutes remaining in the game, when he burned his defenseman and cut in toward Lerg, getting a shot off at the same moment he crashed into the goalie. One of Regan’s linemates then buried the puck into the net for the tying goal off his rebound – until the referee’s hand shot up and Regan was sent to the box for goaltender interference with 2:23 remaining and no goal was awarded.”This late in the playoffs, you have to have heart to take the puck to the net, obviously Garrett had a lot of drive,” Rankin said. “I thought it should’ve been called a goal. I thought it was a pretty questionable call.”Notre Dame never recovered, despite spending the last two minutes of the game in a 5-on-4 situation after Spartans defenseman Ethan Graham was called for tripping and Irish goalie Dave Brown was pulled from the net for the extra attacker. The Irish defense blocked three shots on the empty net, but the offense could not beat Lerg before the buzzer.”Obviously our best player was our best player when he had to be, that’s Jeff,” Michigan State captain Chris Lawrence said of Lerg.The Spartans (24-13-3) took a 2-0 lead on the power play 5:59 into the third period after Irish right wing Ryan Thang was whistled for checking from behind. Thang’s penalty was called eight seconds after the Irish were back at full strength following a high-sticking call on center Christian Hanson.Spartans left wing Tim Kennedy capitalized on the man-advantage situation and beat Brown to his five-hole on a wraparound for the eventual game-winner.The Irish were whistled for 10 penalties on the game and had to kill off seven Spartan power plays, allowing two goals. The Irish power play went 0-for-5, unable to penetrate the Spartans defense and allowing several short-handed scoring chances for Michigan State. “We took a few extra penalties than we usually take that might not be characteristic,” Brown said. “But you know, that’s just how the game goes. We fought hard [Friday] night [against Alabama-Huntsville] for five periods, and if there were any side effects were not using that as an excuse.”The Spartans scored their first goal 6:04 into the second period for the 1-0 lead when center Chris Mueller banged home an open rebound past Brown on the power play. The goal came less than two minutes after the Spartans had a goal waived off.Right wing Jim McKenzie beat Brown on his blocker side from the slot, but it was recalled after a video review determined that center Justin Abdelkader was in the crease when the goal was scored, interfering with Brown. Less than 15 seconds later, the Irish were whistled for tripping on Rankin and Michigan State was able to take the permanent lead.”The first one [the ref] cancelled, he just gave them a power play right away anyways,” Brown said. “It was frustrating because within ten seconds he gave them the power play. That was frustrating, and the shot kind of got deflected, and it deflected right off me to their guy.”Notre Dame was beat 35-46 on faceoffs by the Spartans – a strong point for the Irish all season.”I knew [faceoffs] were going to be a concern coming in – puck possession off of faceoffs,” Jackson said. “We’re a pretty good faceoff team, but one team we had a real problem with this year was against Michigan State. … Both goals were direct results of faceoffs, one on the [second-period] power play and one five-on-five that drew the penalty.”Irish center Kevin Deeth had an opportunity to give Notre Dame the first lead 10 minutes into the first period with the team’s best scoring chance of the game. Deeth got the puck alone in the slot in front of Lerg, deked out the goalie and went left side, but Lerg stretched across the crease and gloved it out of mid-air.Lerg and the rest of the Spartans will now play Maine in the Frozen Four in St. Louis April 5.Brown, who made 23 saves on the game and didn’t surrender an even-strength goal, is still a front-runner to be one of the three candidates named Wednesday as finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award to be awarded April 6 in St. Louis. “We changed the culture within the program, in the locker room,” Brown said of this season. “Everyone is dying every night to play. We want to win so bad that to have it end like this is just heartbreaking. Hopefully the nation will see how we elevated Notre Dame hockey to national prominence.”