Hockey: Irish advance to title game in late thriller
Matt Gamber | Friday, March 20, 2009
DETROIT – It only took Notre Dame’s potent power play four minutes to strike in Friday’s CCHA semifinal against Northern Michigan, but the top-seeded Irish would need the full 60 minutes to hold off the Wildcats and advance to Saturday’s championship with a 2-1 win.
The No. 6-seeded Wildcats (18-17-5) stuck right with Notre Dame (30-5-3), the league’s regular season champion and the nation’s No. 1 team, and tied the game 1-1 on a Mark Olver deflection with 1:23 to play in regulation. But the Irish regained the lead with just a minute left when sophomore center Ben Ryan put home a rebound from junior left wing Ryan Thang.
“It was kind of a broken play,” Ryan said. “[Senior captain] Erik Condra put the puck on him and it just came to my backhand. We were saying the whole game [to] get guys at the net. The best way to score is to get in [Wildcats goaltender Brian Stewart’s] face.”
Notre Dame got the start it wanted when Olver drew back-to-back penalties in the game’s opening minutes. The Wildcats killed the first Irish power play, but junior defenseman Kyle Lawson beat Stewart with a wrist shot from the right circle to give Notre Dame a 1-0 advantage.
The quick goal might have had Northern Michigan thinking about its series at the Joyce Center in mid-February, when Notre Dame converted 10 of its 16 power play chances en route to a dominating two-game sweep. But the Wildcats settled down and, after notching just six shots in the first period, matched Notre Dame’s tempo the rest of the way.
“I thought it was pretty much the kind of game we needed to play to be able to get a win here tonight,” Wildcats coach Walt Kyle said. “I think we knew we were going to need to keep it close.”
The Wildcats almost did more than that, narrowly missing scoring chances on several occasions before tying the game late.
On a power play early in the second period, Northern Michigan put several shots on Irish senior goaltender Jordan Pearce, who lost his stick in a scuffle for a loose puck. Notre Dame was able to clear the danger, but four minutes later, Wildcats center Jared Brown fired a shot that beat Pearce but was denied by the post, just missing the equalizing goal.
In the third period, there was consistently a crowd in front of the Irish net, but Pearce was able to keep any rebounds from sneaking home until Olver’s goal with just over a minute to play.
“I didn’t even see the puck go in after it hit me,” Olver said. “I just felt it, I didn’t know where it went. I knew [Irish sophomore defenseman] Ian Cole hit it, I looked behind me to grab it and it went off my leg, that was pretty much it.”
Notre Dame regrouped quickly, determined to avoid a heartbreaking loss like the one it suffered to Miami (Ohio) in last year’s semifinals. In that game, the Irish led 1-0 with just seconds to play in regulation, but the RedHawks tied it on a late goal and won in overtime, 2-1.
“Coach pulled us over right away and said, you know, we’ve been here before,” Lawson said. “It kind of rallied us, and I think that had a huge impact on us going out there and getting the next one.”
With Thang flicking several unsuccessful tries toward Stewart, Ryan finally skated in and placed the puck into the top of the net for the game-winner. Cole was credited with his second assist of the day on the play.
“I went to catch it and I didn’t catch it,” Stewart said. “I dropped it and it went in. It was my fault.”
The late tally spoiled a tremendous effort from Stewart, who stopped 34 shots, including 14 in an opening period dominated by the Irish.
Pearce was equally impressive in almost notching his third straight shutout. The CCHA’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year made 21 saves, many of them on rebound attempts and shots from in close.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “I expected Northern Michigan to put up a challenge. In today’s world it’s almost impossible to beat somebody five times in the same season, especially a team of that caliber.”
Notre Dame will face the winner of tonight’s Michigan-Alaska match-up at 7:35 p.m. Saturday at Joe Louis Arena as the Irish try for their second CCHA Championship in three years.