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Hoonhout: The Irish proved they don’t mind a dogfight

| Friday, April 6, 2018

ST. PAUL, Minn. — For a moment, it seemed like Notre Dame’s luck had reached the end of the road.

Despite managing a power play just 34 seconds into the contest — and against Michigan’s not-so-stellar penalty kill — the top-seeded Irish (28-9, 17-6 Big Ten) failed to capitalize. Then, a momentary lapse on defense gave the second-seeded Wolverines (22-15, 11-10) the lead when star senior forward Tony Calderone fired low past Irish sophomore goalie Cale Morris just 8:19 into the game.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish sophomore goaltender Cale Morris surveys the ice as the Wolverine offense brings the puck into the defensive zone during Notre Dame’s 4-3 win over Michigan on Thursday night in the Frozen Four.

And just 17 seconds into the second period, Michigan doubled its lead out of nothing. Shooting from a tight angle, Wolverines senior forward Dexter Dancs simply tried to get a shot on net. Instead, the puck ricocheted off Irish junior defenseman Dennis Gilbert’s upraised arm and flew past Morris into the top corner.

The last time Notre Dame was down 2-0 in the Frozen Four? Last year’s semifinal bout with Denver. And we all know how that ended.

But instead of imploding, the Irish rose to the occasion.

First, it was junior forward Andrew Oglevie, who fired through traffic on Notre Dame’s next power play off of an assist from senior captain and forward Jake Evans to make it 2-1.

Then, four minutes later, it was a wrister from Evans off a feed from senior defenseman Jordan Gross, and just like that, it was back to square one.

Even after Michigan tied it up at 3-3 late in the third after a great sequence, the Irish didn’t flinch. Instead, with the clock winding down, sophomore forward Cam Morrison skated up the ice with a chance to win it. But instead of firing the puck home — like he did to win the Big Ten tournament against Ohio State — the forward laid it back to Evans, who five-holed Michigan sophomore netminder Hayden Lavigne to send the Irish to the national championship.

Michigan was the one team to sweep the Irish all year, and the Wolverines showed why Thursday night. They played Notre Dame as close as anyone this entire season. The Irish struggled to win faceoffs and command possession for all three periods. And yet, the funny thing is, I don’t think they really minded.

Notre Dame has shown all year that it isn’t afraid of anybody. The Big Ten was the best conference in the country, and the Irish stormed in and ran away with the regular-season title. It wasn’t close. And when the postseason began and teams really started throwing their best Notre Dame’s way, Jeff Jackson’s team responded in kind.

The Irish have come a long way since 12 months ago. You couldn’t fault any team for getting a little flustered after getting down 2-0 on the heels of a lucky goal. Especially after the implosion that happened the last time out in the Frozen Four. But not this bunch. Rather than run away from adversity, the Irish prefer to welcome the challenge.

Notre Dame’s best weapon this season hasn’t been a player on the ice. It’s been the mental toughness and belief that radiates throughout the entire team.

There isn’t a need to have a 20-goal scorer when you know that you have any one of 17 guys willing and able to put one in the back of the net. There isn’t a worry about inexperience between the pipes when you have a first-year starting goaltender who plays with a composure well beyond his years.

The Irish are so deadly not just because they give timely punches — they also don’t mind taking them. Just when Michigan thought it had seized momentum back with five minutes left in the game after piling on the pressure, Notre Dame came down the ice in the final moments and calmly delivered the death sentence. It’s remarkably happened five games in a row now, and yet Michigan was still powerless to stop it.

I’m not sure if the Irish will be able to bring home the program’s first-ever title Saturday night. But at least I can say what a difference a year makes.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

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

Contact Tobias