April 6, 2017
By John Heisler
The University of Notre Dame hockey team found out firsthand Thursday night in an NCAA Frozen Four semifinal game why Denver is ranked number one in the country.
Part of the reason for that is the Pioneer defense that also rated number one nationally coming in while allowing just 1.81 goals per game.
But, at least based on what transpired at the United Center, the Denver offense deserves just as much credit for its gaudy 32-7-4 record because it simply maintained the puck in the Irish zone for the better part of the evening.
“Their defense was their offense,” said Irish coach Jeff Jackson after it ended. “Their defense was their puck possession, their puck management. They do a good job with their defensemen making good plays coming out of their zone. They do a great job in the offensive zone where they possess the puck.
“That's how you hold teams down in shots. If the other team doesn't get the puck, they're not going to have many shots.”
All that translated to a 6-1 Pioneer victory, sending the Denver into the title game Saturday night against Minnesota-Duluth—and sending the Irish home with a final 23-12-5 slate.
A crowd of 19,626 fans (second highest total for the NCAA semifinals) looked on.
The Pioneers simply dominated the puck, earning multiple chances in the Irish end from the opening face-off. Notre Dame struggled to get the puck out of its own end—requiring five minutes to muster a shot of any sort. Jordan Gross’ first Notre Dame shot on goal came six and a half minutes into the NCAA nightcap (after Duluth scored in the final 30 seconds to defeat Harvard 2-1 in the opener).
The Pioneers got on the board first when senior Austrian winger Emil Romig connected on a tough angle from just outside goal line extended with 11:42 to go—and Finnish freshman Henrik Borgstrom made it 2-0 with 5:10 remaining on a perfect setup by veteran defenseman Will Butcher.
All-star Irish goaltender Cal Petersen ended up making 11 first-period saves, while eight other Denver shots were blocked. The Pioneers led 25-6 in total shots, and that set the tone for the event. Notre Dame’s three first-period shots on goal (only one in the last 10 minutes) ranked as the fewest in the first period of a national semifinal since at least 1999.
“We knew coming in they were a highly-gifted offensive team and we were going to have to weather a couple of their storms,” said Petersen. “Unfortunately, they got too many for us to come back on.”
“They were all over us right off the bat,” said junior Irish center Jake Evans.
With a long list of former Irish players and coaches on hand—including one-time Irish player and head coach Ric Schafer, Kevin Nugent, Terry Fairholm, Kevin Deeth, Brian Walsh, Dave Laurion and long-time Lefty Smith assistant Tim McNeill—Irish fans represented well at the United Center. What they saw was an impressive effort by an opponent Petersen called the “best team we’ve seen all season, hands down.”
With 14:49 left in the second period, dozens of T-shirts parachuted down from the rafters to fans below. What the Irish would have preferred was a way to change the mojo. But an odd-man rush for Denver ended in a two-on-one opportunity that defenseman Tariq Hammond cashed in at 5:53 of the second for a 3-0 Pioneer advantage. It went to 4-0 at 3:33 on a marker by sophomore center Dylan Gambrell. Center Evan Ritt’s score 111 seconds later pushed the Pioneer lead to 5-0 inside the four-minute mark.
Only three times all year had the Irish allowed at least five goals (only one time did they permit six). And only three times all year had Notre Dame fallen by three or more goals. The Pioneers have now scored at least five goals in all three of their games in the 2017 NCAA Championships (only Boston College did that in 2006).
Notre Dame forced junior Denver goaltender Tanner Jaillet to make eight second-period saves—yet the Pioneers still managed 25 more total shots in the middle frame (the Irish had 18 in that period).
Notre Dame avoided the shutout 11:24 into the final period when—five seconds into a power play on Denver’s only penalty of the night—Cam Morrison’s 12th goal (from Evans and Jordan Gross) made it 5-1. Denver got it back about five minutes later on Gambrell’s second tally of the night.
Of Petersen, Jackson said, “He's our leader back there. We left him out to dry a few times. When you give up backdoor goals, you're certainly not doing a good job protecting your goaltender, and we gave up a couple of those today. And we didn't do a good job at the net front, either. It was a lot of pucks bouncing in and around the crease. That's Denver's game and our inexperience, our youth on defense. “
The Pioneers ended up firing 78 shots toward Petersen, forcing 36 saves. The Irish, on the other hand, finished with 17 shots on goal (the sixth time this season Denver has held an opponent below 20). The NCAA tracks what it terms “Grade-A Chances” to score and gave Denver an 18-3 edge in that category. Irish scoring standouts Anders Bjork and Andrew Oglevie managed one shot on goal each.
Offered Jackson, “I'm not going to be pleased until we win one of these things. Getting here is great. I give these kids a lot of credit because I don't think anybody expected them to be here.
“But, hey, they got within a point of first place in Hockey East. They got within a game of the championship in Boston Garden. They got within a game of playing in the national championship game. So something has to be said for that.
“And the core of our team, a lot of those juniors, some grew over the season and gave us the opportunity. We were basically a .500 team in the first half. They certainly did something right in the second half of the season, and the credit goes to the kids for making that change and adjusting and growing, frankly maturing, with a lot of those young players. We graduate two seniors off this group--and one of them is a fourth-line right winger, one is our third-string goaltender. So it's a young group.”
Evans called the game “the toughest loss of my career here.”
Petersen paid a final compliment to the Pioneers: “A lot of credit goes to them. They’re a fantastic team.”
Jackson noted the senior presence on the Denver unit—led by Butcher, a Hobey Baker Award finalist.
With 157 points this season coming from Notre Dame’s junior class—almost three times as many as any of the other Frozen Four junior classes—that could be the Irish next season.
“They're the No. 1 ranked team in the country for a reason,” said the Irish head coach in the interview room. “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. It's about learning and growing and experiences and maybe we can be that team a year from now. They were here last year. They were not happy about losing, and they came back.” Said Jackson to his squad after the game, “You had a great second half (of the season) and you got us to the Frozen Four. You go through these experiences and you learn from them.
“Let’s make sure we hang up the jerseys with pride.”
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.