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Hockey: Irish battle Fighting Sioux

Allan Joseph | Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Playing in front of 11,680 fans at No. 7 North Dakota’s Ralph Engelstad Arena, the No. 12 Irish struggled in a 6-3 loss Friday night but rebounded with a gritty performance Saturday for a hard-fought 2-2 tie.

“This was the first time our freshmen were overwhelmed,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “It’s a professional environment. It’s like playing in front of a pro crowd in a pro-type building. Playing them in their building in that environment was ultimately a good experience for us.”

The Fighting Sioux (9-5-2) jumped on the visitors early in Friday’s matchup, dominating the first period and taking a 2-0 lead on the strength of a 15-3 advantage in shots on goal. Notre Dame (9-4-2) was rarely able to break out of its own zone all game Friday night. Though freshman winger David Gerths would bring the Irish back to a single-goal deficit midway through the second period, North Dakota would answer each Notre Dame goal with a score of its own to reopen its two-goal advantage.

“Our guys weren’t as sharp as they needed to be [Friday],” Jackson said. “The two-goal deficit in the first period put us on our heels a bit. We couldn’t get the job done Friday night.”

Irish sophomore goaltender Mike Johnson faced 39 shots on the night, finishing the night with 33 saves.

“It was a challenging environment for him and our defense didn’t play up to expectations,” Jackson said. “I thought he played well enough to come back the next night [instead of being replaced by freshman Steven Summerhays].”

Johnson did just that Saturday night, putting on one of his best performances of the year in the 2-2 draw in front of another sold-out crowd. He made a season-high 39 saves including three crucial saves on the penalty kill in overtime to preserve the tie.

“Saturday night [Johnson] helped us stay in the game and he did what he had to do,” Jackson said. “He played extremely well on Saturday.”

The Fighting Sioux broke through first on Saturday at the halfway point of the second period, but the Irish answered four minutes later with a short-handed goal from freshman TJ Tynan. Notre Dame currently leads the country in shorthanded goals with seven on the season.

North Dakota opened the third period on the power play and converted to take a 2-1 lead early in the final stanza. As the third period rolled on, it seemed as if the Irish would have to take a disappointing pair of losses back to South Bend, but with just 3:03 remaining in regulation, sophomore defenseman Sam Calabrese scored his first collegiate goal off a rebound from a Tynan shot to earn the 2-2 tie.

“We were a better team on Saturday night,” Jackson said. “We were less impacted by the environment. The kids competed hard.”

The games against North Dakota were the fifth and sixth of an extremely difficult stretch of eight games which started against No. 11 Michigan and then-No. 17 Michigan State. The stretch will close with a trip to Ohio to play two games against No. 6 Miami on Friday and Saturday.

“It’s a grueling schedule for us. My thing is that if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger, so we’re still alive,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be another challenging series for us. It’s going to be a tough weekend, and we’re going to have to play better than we did last weekend.”