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Special teams cost Irish

Chris Allen | Thursday, April 7, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn. –– There is little doubt in the mind of Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson as to what ended his team’s season one step short of the national championship game: the Irish special teams, a weakness all season, were exposed on the biggest stage in their 4-3 loss to Minnesota-Duluth.

“People can see the game. Obviously that game was dictated by one thing: special teams,” Jackson said. “They have an exceptional power play, and we couldn’t generate any offense on the power play. So I thought we played a good game five-on-five. Other than that, you know, the game was completely determined by special teams.”

The Irish problems on special teams began after freshman wing Jeff Costello gave them a 1-0 lead in the game’s first minute. Nearly a minute later, fellow freshman and center David Gerths was whistled for hooking, and the Bulldogs wasted no time in answering on a goal less than a minute later from J.T. Brown to even the game at one.

The exchange was a harbinger of things to come for Jeff Jackson’s bunch, as Notre Dame allowed two more power-play goals over the course of the first two periods while managing just two shots in their own four power-plays in that span. Minnesota-Duluth’s superiority on their power-play unit was evident throughout the affair, with the Bulldogs notching their final two power-play goals within the first 25 seconds of their man-up advantage.

Senior center Ben Ryan said the versatility and speed of the Bulldog unit, which heavily featured forwards Jack and Mike Connolly as well as forward Justin Fontaine and defenseman Justin Faulk, were difficult for the Irish penalty kill unit to handle.

“They were very versatile, they didn’t really have anything set,” he said. “They had a lot of movement on the other side of the ice with guys on the weak side. I give them all the credit. We were kind of standing around a little bit instead of picking guys up.”

Notre Dame entered the Frozen Four with a power play unit ranked a mediocre 39th in the nation after converting with a 16.2 percent success rate throughout the season. The shaky unit had problems breaking down the Bulldogs’ penalty kill unit all game, failing to register a shot on multiple power-play attempts. Faulk said his team’s penalty kill was effective in keeping the Irish out of the offensive zone.

“I think it was just our gaps in the neutral zone, and our forwards kind of pressured them off to one side and allowed our [defense] to step up and pinch them off at the blue line,” Faulk said. “Then even when they did get in the zone, I think when they were along the boards, we were able to pressure them pretty well. When they did have shot opportunities I think a lot of guys were willing to sacrifice their bodies and block a shot for the team.”

Jackson said Notre Dame’s lack of a consistent and top-level point man to direct the power play — something Minnesota-Duluth had in Faulk — hurt the Irish in the game all season.

“You know, to be honest with you, our special teams this year have been a bit of a disappointment. They’ve been one of the staples of our program for the last five years,” Jackson said. “We don’t have Duluth’s quarterback out there at the point. I think [sophomore defenseman] Sam Calabrese is developing that, but Faulk is a threat out there from a shooting perspective and he’s also a good playmaker. So we lack that right now.”

Though the Irish played their best hockey Thursday night at even strength, Jackson ultimately conceded that better special teams are needed to advance late in the postseason.

“I thought our guys played pretty well five-on-five,” he said. “But, you know, we needed to do a better job on the power play, which would have made a big difference in the game.”