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Irish magical run to the Frozen Four comes to an end in loss to Denver

| Friday, April 7, 2017

CHICAGO — Notre Dame’s quest for a national championship hit a roadblock Thursday night, as top-seeded Denver overpowered the Irish from start to finish.

While Irish head coach Jeff Jackson was proud of his team’s journey to the Frozen Four, he admitted the Irish were simply beaten.

“Congratulations to Denver, they’re certainly a great team, seemed like a team on a mission to me, so hats off to them,” he said. “We looked a little more like we did a few weeks back in the Boston Garden [in a 5-1 loss to UMass Lowell], we certainly had a very tough opponent and that had a lot to do with it.”

Irish junior forward Jake Evans drives toward the net with the puck during Notre Dame’s 6-1 loss to  Denver in the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament Thursday at the United Center in Chicago.Kathleen Donahue | The Observer
Irish junior forward Jake Evans drives toward the net with the puck during Notre Dame’s 6-1 loss to
Denver in the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament Thursday at the United Center in Chicago.

The first period was all Denver (32-7-4, 20-4-3 NCHC), as the Pioneers flexed their offensive muscle in Notre Dame’s zone, controlling the puck and consistently getting shots on goal. Irish junior captain and netminder Cal Petersen was forced to make 11 saves, but there was little he could do when Denver senior forward Emil Romig skated behind the net, turned and fired a rip over Petersen’s left shoulder into the top netting for the opener with a little over five minutes gone by.

The Irish (23-12-5, 12-6-4 Hockey East) tried to respond, but struggled to maintain possession in Denver’s zone, as the Pioneers used their speed to force turnovers, get out in transition and create chances. They did not have to wait long for a second, as captain and senior defenseman Will Butcher raced past Irish freshman forward Mike O’Leary around the net and dished a puck to freshman forward Henrik Borgstrom, who slotted the puck past Petersen’s leg to put Denver up two.

The Pioneers even had several chances to put more on the board, as Romig sailed a shot over the crossbar after a two-on-one with just over two minutes left, and an errant pass from Irish freshman defender Andrew Peeke gifted Denver another opportunity, but the shot sailed past the post, ending the first period at 2-0.

Notre Dame came out in the second trying to spark a comeback, and sophomore defenseman Dennis Gilbert laid a big open-ice hit early in the period to the approval of the mostly pro-Irish crowd.

Star forward Anders Bjork had a good chance to get Notre Dame back in the game when the junior cut inside and drove straight to the net, but was unable to force it in. As time went on, however, the Irish once again struggled to find passing lanes to get out of their zone, and Denver was happy to press Notre Dame and force turnovers.

The turning point came at 14:07. Forcing a faceoff in Denver’s zone after some positive possession, the Irish pushed to keep the puck in the offensive zone. But after the scrum, the Pioneers were able to get out in transition.

As Irish junior defenseman Luke Ripley moved backward to stay in front of the oncoming rush, he slipped, suddenly gifting the Pioneers a two-on-one matchup. Denver subsequently made no mistake, as Pioneers senior forward Evan Janssen slipped the puck to junior defenseman Tariq Hammond for the tap in. The goal sucked any momentum Notre Dame had out of the building, and once again the Irish were on their heels.

“I felt we were turning a corner and then we had a defenseman fall down,” Jackson said on the third goal. “I thought we started getting a little more comfortable playing the game at that pace, but that third goal is the back killer.”

Two and a half minutes later, Denver struck again, as sophomore forward Dylan Gambrell skated around the net and fired a shot on goal. Petersen went for the save, but the puck helplessly rolled over his arm and into the net to put the Pioneers up four.

With the blood in the water, Denver was hungry for more, and were gifted a golden opportunity when another Irish defenseman slipped — this time sophomore Bobby Nardella — forcing Petersen to make two saves to preserve some dignity for the Irish. But moments later, Bjork uncharacteristically gave the puck away in his own zone, and this time Petersen was helpless as senior forward Evan Ritt fired past his left shoulder to make it 5-0 in a forgettable period for the Irish.

“He’s been our rock all season long,” Jackson said on Petersen, who made 36 saves on the night. “I thought he had a couple that he probably would’ve liked back, bad angle situations, things that he usually stops off the post. They exposed him when he was a little too aggressive in a few situations, but he also made some saves for us too, so it makes up for giving up a bad goal here and there.”

The third period saw both teams finally get on the power play, as Denver had a chance at 5:20 when Notre Dame was called for too many players on the ice. But the Irish killed it off, and six minutes later finally got off the board after Denver freshman defenseman Michael Davies was penalized for interference. Immediately off the faceoff, freshman forward Cam Morrison deflected in a long-range effort from junior defenseman Jordan Gross to give Notre Dame a lone bright spot. But the game was still too far out of reach, and at 16:42 Denver cemented its spot in the national championship as Gambrell added a second goal off a shot that glanced in off Petersen’s skate.

“They’re the number one ranked team in the country for a reason,” Jackson said on Denver’s play. “You give them their due; they’re a great team. I just didn’t think we played as well as we’re capable of playing.”

But for the Irish, who only graduate two seniors this year, this loss only serves as motivation for next year.

“For me, it just makes us more hungry to get back out there and come in with a better mindset, similar to what this Denver team here did [last year],” sophomore forward Andrew Oglevie said. “We’re going to build off of it, have a good offseason and come back ready.”

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

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