March 29, 2008
West Regional | Final
Pluck of the Irish
Notre Dame’s roller coaster ride continues all the way to Denver for first Frozen Four appearance

By Harry Thompson

Notre Dame 3,
Michigan State 1
Team Goal Str
Time Assists

First Period

No Scoring

Second Period

1-ND Christian Hanson (13) EV
2:43 C. Minella
1-MS Justin Abdelkader (19) EV
9:05 T. Kennedy, T. Crowder
Third Period
2-ND Mark Van Guilder (12) EV
14:06 B. Ryan
3-ND Teddy Ruth (2) EV
15:20 J. White, C. Hanson
Goaltending
ND: Jordan Pearce, 60:00, 20 saves, 1 GA
MS: Jeff Lerg, 59:13, 23 saves, 3 GA
Penalties: ND 4/8; MS 5/10
Power Plays: ND 0-4; MS 0-3
Attendance: 5,836
All-Tournament Team
G: Jeff Lerg, Michigan State
D: Jeff Petry, Michigan State
D: Brock Sheahan, Notre Dame
F: Justin Abdelkader, Michigan State
F: Christian Hanson, Notre Dame
F: Mark Van Guilder, Notre Dame
Most Outstanding Player: Van Guilder

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Cinderella is wearing a new slipper this NCAA tournament season, and it goes great with the golden dome.

Coming into the West Regional as the fourth seed and pretty much an afterthought by most of college hockey’s prognosticators, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish lived up to its name by knocking off the defending national champions from Michigan State University with a 3-1 victory on Saturday night.

In the span of 1:14 late in the third period, the Irish staked its claim to its first Frozen Four appearance and will draw CCHA rival Michigan when the puck drops at the Pepsi Center in Denver on April 10.

It will mark the Fighting Irish’s first trip to the Frozen Four, and is also the first time since the inception of the new NCAA tournament format in 2003 that a fourth seed has advanced to college hockey’s big dance.

“We came into the tournament thinking that we had nothing to lose and decided to just let it all hang out,” said senior captain Mark Van Guilder, who was named the Western Regionals most outstanding player.

Van Guilder and Teddy Ruth scored 74 seconds apart late in the third period to snap a 1-1 tie and prove that Spartans’ seemingly impenetrable defensive, led by junior goaltender Jeff Lerg, does indeed have a few cracks.

“At 1-1, you knew the next goal was critical, and we turned the puck over and they capitalized,” said Spartans head coach Rick Comley.

After knocking off the No. 1 seeded University of New Hampshire Wildcats on Friday night, the Irish knew what to expect from the Spartans, as the two schools were meeting for the 100th time in their 87-year history. The Spartans hold a 59-31-9 advantage, but on this night it was the Irish and their unheralded goaltender Jordan Pearce who would be left to circle the World Arena ice in celebration.

Despite a case of the flu that kept him from practicing all week, Pearce saved his best for last, especially with the Spartans turning up the heat in the final moments.

“I did what I had to do to win the game,” said Pearce, who turned aside 20 shots, including 10 in the first period. “After watching from the bench last year I learned that you have to play your best games at the biggest moments.”

Despite holding a 1.94 goals-against average, which ranks sixth nationally, Pearce came to Colorado Springs as the odd goalie out when it came to publicity. All the Anchorage native did was outplay two Hobey Baker finalists in Kevin Regan of UNH and Lerg.

“I don’t have to worry about my game. Numbers are just numbers,” said Pearce. “I just wanted to play well and get a win for the boys. It’s the least I can do for them.”

Last year it was the Spartans who escaped from an NCAA Regional in Grand Rapids, Mich., at the expense of the Irish. This year the skate was on the other foot.

“They were hungry and they capitalized on mistakes when it counted,” said Lerg, who was named to the all-tournament team. “We know how it feels to be on the winning side and we know how it feels to be on the losing side.”

After a scoreless opening frame, Christian Hanson put the Irish on the board when he followed his own rebound on a wrap-around attempt and poked the puck past a sprawling Lerg.

The lead held up until almost the midway mark of the period when Justin Abdelkader redeemed himself for ringing a blast off the crossbar when he one-timed a Tim Kennedy pass in the slot past Pearce.

The Irish thought they had regained the lead when Kevin Deeth’s shot from the point handcuffed Lerg and Evan Rankin was there to poke it home. The off-ice officials ruled that Dan Kissel was in the crease.

“It was a tough call but we’ve had it happen a few times to us this year,” said Van Guilder. “We knew whatever the decision that we had to go on and keep on battling. You can’t let something like that kill your momentum.”

For Jeff Jackson, who is leading the Irish to its first Frozen Four in only his third year on the job, it’s all part of what has been a dream come true.

“When the Notre Dame job became available, I knew that was where I wanted to be. I wanted to go there when I was 17 but I couldn’t afford it,” the Roseville, Mich., native said. “I love the strong tradition and grew up a huge Knute Rockne fan.

“My belief is that we can have the same tradition in hockey even though Notre Dame will always be a football school. But so what, so is Michigan and so is Wisconsin.”

SEEN AND HEARD AT THE WORLD ARENA

INCH's Three Stars of the Night

3. Justin Abdelkader, Michigan State
Michigan State’s sparkplug forward scored one goal and rang another shot off the crossbar while playing his usual two-way game.

2. Mark Van Guilder, Notre Dame
The senior captain of the Fighting Irish never let his teammates give up and came through the eventual game winner at 15:20 of the final period.

1. Jordan Pearce, Notre Dame
Despite suffering from the flu all week, the Irish’s sophomore goalie stepped up big and outplayed the other three heralded goalies in the West Regional.

• Jeff Lerg, a native of Livonia, Mich., has always had a soft spot in his heart for Colorado Springs. And why not? He’s always left town loaded down with accolades and awards compliments of USA Hockey. Lerg won the Dave Peterson Goalie of the Year and Junior Player of the Year awards in 2005, and followed that up last year by garnering College Player of the Year honors.

“It’s definitely exciting for me to come to Colorado Springs. USA Hockey has been pretty good to me over the years. I hope to add another trophy [and] the West Regional would be a good one to take home,” Lerg said prior to Friday night’s game.

• Sparty, the Michigan State mascot, received a much warmer reception on Saturday night than he did before MSU took on Colorado College. Of course, with the building half full at game time, even the Zamboni drivers received a nice round of applause.

• Prior to Friday’s seven-goal offensive outburst, Notre Dame had scored just four goals in its previous three games. With three goals against a stingy Spartans defense, the Irish may want to bottle some of that Colorado Springs high-altitude air and bring it with them up the road to Denver in two weeks.

• Part of the perks of coaching at Notre Dame is meeting some of the school’s greatest players and coaches.

“I’ve become good friends with Charlie Weis and I’ve met Lou Holtz and Joe Montana,” said Irish head hockey coach Jeff Jackson.

• Jackson is a 1978 Michigan State graduate. Michigan State coach Rick Comley's daughter, Gillian, is a Notre Dame graduate.

PLUSSES AND MINUSES

Hockey fans in Colorado Springs could have easily packed it in after the Tigers fell to Michigan State on Friday night. Instead, 5,836 showed up to see Saturday night’s West Regional final.

Justin Abdelkader played his typically strong game at both ends of the ice, scoring the Spartans’ lone goal, hitting the crossbar on another attempt and was an effective penalty killer.

As part of his aggressive style, Abdelkader also took three penalties, including one late in the game when the Spartans needed him most.

Our compliments to the media dining room staff for going above and beyond by serving both chicken and beef fajitas on Saturday night. The dinner sure beat the hockey pucks swimming in brown water they served as hamburgers the night before.

WHAT'S NEXT

The last time the West Regional was held in Colorado Springs was in 2004, when another improbable winner emerged – Denver ousted top-ranked North Dakota in the regional final and ended up winning the whole shebang in Boston two weeks later.

Notre Dame is similar to that Denver squad in many regards. Both teams carried on despite losing top scorers late in the season (DU played without Connor James, while the Irish are without Erik Condra.) Both leaned on goalies who didn't become full-time starters until late in their careers – Denver's Adam Berkhoel became the main man as a senior, while junior Jordan Pearce had played in 12 games prior to this season.

Most notable, however, are the similarities in styles. Like that DU team, the Irish, as a whole, are greater than the sum of their parts. They got contributions from everyone in the lineup. And they're playing loose because, hey, no one expects 'em to be here. Notre Dame will be heavy underdogs to Michigan in the Frozen Four semifinal. One gets the sense that's just fine with the Irish.

The ending is a disappointing one for Michigan State. One night after thoroughly outplaying Colorado College in its home rink, the Spartans looked uninspired against Notre Dame and appeared particularly listless in the third period. MSU loses a handful of key seniors to graduation – forwards Bryan Lerg and Chris Mueller and defensemen Jeff Dunne and Daniel Vukovic among them. There's also a strong possibility junior forwards Justin Abdelkader and Tim Kennedy could leave school early to embark on professional careers.

Mike Eidelbes