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Hockey: Great outdoors

Peter Steiner | Monday, February 18, 2013

It was a big venue, but a bigger game.

Playing outdoors at Soldier Field on Sunday, No. 12 Notre Dame defeated No. 3 Miami, 2-1, to split the weekend series after losing 3-1 on Friday night in Oxford, Ohio.

Sunday’s victory in the OfficeMax Hockey City Classic marks the first time the Irish (19-12-1, 15-8-1-1 CCHA) have beaten the RedHawks (19-8-5, 14-6-4-4) since 2010. The win also allows Notre Dame to remain in the hunt for a CCHA regular season championship, as the team sits three points behind first-place Miami and one point behind second-place Western Michigan.

“[Sunday’s win] is important for us in a big way as far as where we want to finish the season,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “To win a game against Miami on the road is a challenging feat, and we’re fortunate that we were on the road but not in their building.”

The game at Soldier Field was the first outdoor game for the Irish since their varsity program started in 1968. While the outdoor game presented a few challenges, the team handled the conditions well and stuck to its game plan of simplicity, Jackson said.

“The weather was beautiful,” Jackson said. “It was actually a perfect day, but the ice was soft in some areas and a little bumpy and you just have to play a smart game in that situation and our guys did.

“We talked to our guys about just keeping our game simple, not trying to do too much. … They kept it simple and I felt really good about the way we played.”

After a scoreless but well-fought first period, the Irish found the net first when freshman left wing Mario Lucia put away a pass from Irish junior right wing Bryan Rust midway through the second period. Rust took the puck after the Irish won a faceoff in the Miami zone, maneuvered past a RedHawk defenseman near the left side of the net and made a short pass to Lucia, who banged it home.

“I think scoring the first goal is huge, but it’s also even more important when you’ve got tough ice conditions,” Jackson said. “You never know when you’re going to get those kind of opportunities again.”

The Irish held the 1-0 advantage until the 8:33 mark of the third period. Irish junior center and captain Anders Lee advanced the puck against Miami’s defense and put a shot on RedHawk freshman goalie Ryan McKay. After the puck rebounded off McKay’s right knee pad, a trailing Irish junior left wing Jeff Costello gained inside position on his defender and netted his eighth goal of the season.

As has been Notre Dame’s problem in the second half of the season, Miami quickly returned fire, scoring its own goal a minute later. But still holding a one-goal lead, Notre Dame played tight defense and avoided penalties the remainder of the third period to secure the 2-1 victory.

Neither team scored a power play goal in the game, but special teams, particularly the Irish penalty kill, played an important role in Notre Dame’s victory. With 90 seconds left in the first period, Irish junior right wing Mike Voran received a five-minute major penalty and game misconduct for hitting from behind. The Irish, helped by a Miami penalty splitting up the five minutes, held the RedHawks without a goal.

“Our penalty killing was obviously huge for us,” Jackson said. “We made some changes and had some guys that elevated their game and that’s what we have to have the rest of the way.”

Although the Irish won the tough match Sunday, they were on losing side of the close contest Friday night at Steve Cady Arena. Miami netted two goals in the second period of Friday’s game and Notre Dame couldn’t overcome the two-goal deficit, despite a late goal by Irish freshman Steven Fogarty in the third period.

“I thought we played a decent game,” Jackson said. “Defensively, without the puck, we were pretty good. We didn’t give them a whole lot.”

The Irish held the RedHawks to 22 shots on goal, 10 less than Miami averages in conference play. However, Notre Dame was not able to generate much on offense either, with 21 shots on goal and just two in the first period.

“You have to be able to make plays under pressure to score goals, especially teams that pressure like Miami,” Jackson said. “They’re a great team and we didn’t have much opportunity to score until the third period when we finally turned it up a notch and played with a little bit more grit.”

The Irish have now won four of their last five games after going 2-6 in the month of January. Next weekend will present another challenge, but also an opportunity as the team will travel to Kalamazoo, Mich., to face No. 6 Western Michigan, who holds a one-point advantage in the standings over the Irish.

Contact Peter Steiner at [email protected]