GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Two-time defending champion Minnesota came from behind to beat Notre Dame, 5-2, in the opening game of the NCAA Midwest Regional.
Thomas Vanek had two goals — including the game winner — and an assist to lead the Golden Gophers in scoring. Matt Koalska had a goal and assist, Chris Harrington had two key helpers, and Kellen Briggs made 20 saves as the Gophers outshot the Irish 45-22.
“Notre Dame’s a great team,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “This is a great division. We said going in that all four teams were good enough to win it. They played a great game. It was great for college hockey that they’re in the tournament. They’re a big-name school. They’ve had a great year and we’re just happy to live to fight another day.”
The Fighting Irish led 2-0 after the first on goals by Cory McLean and Aaron Gill, but Minnesota roared back from a three-goal second period and never looked back.
Matt Koalska scored at :26 in the second, Harrington banked one in off Danny Irmen’s shoulder nine minutes later, and Vanek’s game-winning goal at 16:24 was a solo, coast-to-coast breakaway.
“In the first period, we were a little uptight,” said Lucia. “That’s what we talked about after the first period. We told our guys, ‘Just relax. Our goaltender’s a good goaltender. He’s going to make some saves. Don’t get frustrated.’
“The tides really turned that first shift of the second period when Koalska scored. We were able to stay out of the penalty box much more … get the puck down low, try to wear them down, and I thought we did that, especially in that second period.”
The Irish scored in the opening and closing minutes of the first period to take their lead. McLean’s even-strength goal came moments after Morgan Cey stopped Koalska at the other end, and Gill scored after Cey came up big on a shorthanded Minnesota rush.
At the start of the second, Koalska zoomed across the crease from right to left, turning and backhanding it past Cey for Minnesota’s first tally of the game.
“They were playing a defensive style so we had to find some lanes and get some speed,” said Koalska. “Harry [Chris Harrington] made a great pass at center ice and I just brought it up there, picked it up to Tommy [Vanek], Tommy made a great pass back and luckily I had a lane there and had a clean shot.” Koalska’s 13th goal of the season cut Notre Dame’s lead in half.
“When we were down two-nothing, we had to score that next goal,” said Lucia. “We didn’t want to go down three-nothing. Once we got the first one, I really felt the momentum was changing and our guys relaxed and shared the puck a little bit more. I think early on we were trying to do it by ourselves instead of doing it together.”
It was Harrington’s hard shot that resulted in the second Minnesota goal at 9:13. “It hit Irmen in the shoulder,” said Harrington, “and turned out to be a big goal.”
The game was tied 2-2, and the momentum shift was palpable.
“There were a couple of significant turning points,” said Notre Dame head coach Dave Poulin. “At two-two, I thought we were in pretty good shape.”
Vanek’s go-ahead goal was much like McLean’s in the first period — end-to-end, and right after Briggs made a save on Notre Dame’s Brett Lebda.
Vanek’s second goal at 11:52 in the third — the one that put the game out of reach — was the other turning point, said Poulin.
“It was kind of a scrambly play in our end, hit someone’s glove and dropped, and then Vanek put it home. Potentially you’re looking at a two-goal swing there. He’s a first-team All-American, made a first-team All-American play.”
Said Vanek, “I was wide open. I just banged at it and it went in. It was a big momentum change for us because we were outshooting them pretty bad there, and getting the lead was big for us. From there on out I knew we were going to win the game.”
The win was the 16th straight in the postseason for the Golden Gophers, and that experience was obvious from the second period on.
“In the locker room after the first period, we just talked about staying positive,” said Harrington. “I think everyone was a little upset. I think it was really important in the locker room just to stay calm and just know that we were going to get our chances throughout the next 40 minutes, and not to try to do too much.”
Minnesota (27-13-3) plays the winner of the Michigan State – Minnesota-Duluth match, and the winner of that contest advances to the NCAA Frozen Four in Boston in two weeks.
This was the first trip to the NCAA tournament for Notre Dame (20-15-4), and Poulin was characteristically philosophical about his team’s showing.
“I told the seniors that I appreciated the fact that they had taken the underclassmen to a new level,” he said, “and now it’s up to the underclassmen to go from there.”