MINNESOTA DULUTH 4, NOTRE DAME 3 | Box Score
By Jess Myers
ST. PAUL, Minn. – Kenny Reiter was living something akin to a nightmare with 17 minutes to play in the Frozen Four semifinals. The Minnesota Duluth goalie—who had been solid in the first two games of the NCAA tournament after garnering a reputation for allowing occasional soft goals in the regular season—had just failed to see a third Notre Dame shot, and in an instant the Bulldogs’ seemingly comfortable two-goal lead had become a one-goal nail-biter.
Called upon to save the day, or at least atone for past mistakes, Reiter backstopped the Bulldogs in the final 17 minutes, turned aside all but that one errant shot out of 15 fired his way in the third period, as the Bulldogs held on for a 4-3 win. Minnesota Duluth advanced to the NCAA title game for the second time in school history.
It was a dreamy end to a game that started as a nightmare for Reiter and his team. Just 49 seconds had ticked off the clock when Jeff Costello gave the Fighting Irish a 1-0 lead, by snapping a long shot under Reiter’s right armpit. The Bulldogs (25-10-6) equaled that effort by scoring on their first shot of the game when J.T. Brown slid a power-play puck under Irish goalie Mike Johnson.
It was a theme that repeated itself a few times in the first 40 minutes, as the Bulldogs power play scored three goals on five man-advantage situations and built a 4-2 lead. Both defenseman Justin Falk and top-line forward Justin Fontaine notched a trio of assists. The Bulldogs were particularly dominant in the middle period, scoring once and out-shooting the Irish by a two-to-one margin.
But Notre Dame hung in there, and pulled back within a goal early in the third, when Calle Ridderwall snapped a short-handed shot that Reiter didn’t see until it was being fished out of the net.
Jeff Jackson’s band of a dozen freshmen promptly corralled all of the momentum and peppered Reiter until the final horn. While the Bulldogs never seemed to officially sink into one of those “four guys on the blue line” defensive shells, they never really mounted an offensive threat either and managed just two shots in the final period.
But in contrast to his early struggles, Reiter covered the lower half of the net, and got help from his defenders, who blocked 14 Irish shots in the game—half of them in the third period.
The Irish, who reached the title game in their only other Frozen Four appearance, in 2008 at Denver’s Pepsi Center, finish the season 25-14-5.
SECOND LINE COMES THROUGH FOR BULLDOGS
By Mike Eidelbes
Minnesota Duluth’s top line of Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly, and Justin Fontaine garner a ton of attention—and rightfully so. But as Notre Dame found out in its Frozen Four semifinal loss to Minnesota Duluth Thursday afternoon, the Bulldogs’ second line of J.T. Brown, Travis Oleksuk, and Kyle Schmidt is pretty good, too.
“The more we produce the better chance we have of winning,” said Schmidt, “whether it’s T.O. and Brownie on the penalty kill doing a great job or five-on-five,”
Brown, a freshman, scored Minnesota Duluth’s first goal, a power-play tally, early in the first period to tie the game at 1-1 and set up Jack Connolly’s second-period power-play goal that turned into the eventual game-winner. Schmidt, a senior, scored the Bulldogs’ lone even-strength goal, speeding up the left wing past Notre Dame defenseman Sam Calabrese and flipping the puck into the net before Fighting Irish goaltender Mike Johnson could poke it away.
“They’re such a great complement,” said Minnesota Duluth goaltender Kenny Reiter, who bounced back from a sluggish start to make 31 saves. “They’re probably our fastest line with J.T. and Schmitty and they put pressure on the defense. If they get the puck behind the other team’s defense, they can get in there right away. Any time you can control the puck like that, it’s huge.”
The trio’s contributions weren’t limited to the offensive end. Brown and Oleksuk play key roles on the penalty kill—UMD successfully vanquished all five of Notre Dame’s power plays and allowed just two shots.
“Our forwards … pressured them off to one side and allowed our D to step up and pinch them off at the blue line,” defenseman Justin Faulk said. “Even when they did get in the zone … we were able to pressure them.”
As a group, the forwards did a fine job in their own end by tying up Notre Dame sticks during goalmouth scrambles and clogging passing lanes on an afternoon when the Bulldog defensive corps did not have their best effort.
“Since we have those top guys who put up 50, 60 points every year, the defensive zone can get kind of overlooked,” Schmidt said. “The proof has been the last five, six weeks. We’ve really tightened down in the d-zone in practice and in games.”
SPECIAL TEAMS DISPARITY FOILS IRISH
By James V. Dowd
Up 2-1 just under 10 minutes into the first period of Thursday’s national semifinal contest, Notre Dame positioned itself well to reach the national championship game for the second time in four seasons. The Irish were achieving the things they wanted to offensively, getting the puck into Minnesota-Duluth’s zone, moving the puck down the ice well and generating shots.
But despite those positive omens, the writing was already on the wall, as the Bulldogs’ first goal came on an early power play with David Gerths in the box for the second time in five minutes. Minnesota-Duluth forward J.T. Brown beat goaltender Mike Johnson from the left circle for the first of three Bulldogs’ power play goals.
“I think we came out pretty good,” Lavin said. “Five-on-five we were controlling some of the play, we were moving the puck pretty good and we were able to chip the puck in behind the (defense). We were actually doing pretty well until we started taking penalties, and I think that’s where things started to turn. That’s been a thing that’s killed us all year, taking penalties. And against a power play like Duluth which is excellent, you’re going to run into some problems.”
The Bulldogs’ power play, a unit that boasted a very impressive 22.5-perecent conversion rate throughout the season, gave Notre Dame’s penalty kill fits all night long, as the Irish found themselves playing a less aggressive style than they typically might to offset Minnesota-Duluth’s dynamic skaters who can break a high-pressure forecheck effectively.
“All year when we’ve been successful we’ve been able to pressure,” Lavin said. “But when you have skilled guys like that it’s almost too dicey to pressure those guys. So when you sit back like that, they’re able to make plays.”
On top of Notre Dame’s struggles killing the penalties they took, the Irish also struggled on the other side of the coin, going 0-for-5 on the power play, including a mid-third period penalty to Mike Connolly that presented a chance to tie the game. The Irish didn’t generate a single shot during that man-advantage.
The Irish did maintain some level of success in five-on-five play in the final frame, outshooting the Bulldogs 5-2 after finding themselves desperate for a tying goal after Calle Ridderwall tied the game short-handed just 2:05 into the third period.
“I don’t think we changed anything or that we did anything different,” Lavin said. “We were more desperate so we were moving our feet and little more, but I think it’s just human nature for a team to do that.”
Lavin, a senior captain, has played his last game in a Notre Dame uniform, but the Irish will return all but four of the players who suited up against the Bulldogs leaving open the possibility that playing a dynamic power play like the Bulldogs will provide longer-term growth for a defensive corps that included three freshmen and a sophomore.
That same group made the most of late season disappointments when they lost the CCHA regular season title on the final day of the year with a loss to Western Michigan and then played below their expectations in the CCHA Championship weekend at Joe Louis Arena, losing to Miami and Michigan. Lavin saw his team grow from that experience, helping get over rookie mistakes and learn what it takes to succeed with their backs against the wall.
“We’re a young team. I think that everything happened for a reason then, and I think it was a good learning lesson for us. When you’re in the playoffs and you’re playing desperation hockey you need to make sure you’re going out there hard every shift. The guys game out hard and did really well in the regional, but tonight, it just came down to special teams.”