SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The Notre Dame Fighting Irish haven’t had a chance to play in many big games in recent years. If Friday night was any indication, they seem to enjoy the big stage.
Playing in front of a sold-out Joyce Center that included Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis and with first-place in the CCHA on the line, the Irish responded with a 4-1 win over the Miami to move three points ahead of the RedHawks in first place in the conference with two games in hand.
Notre Dame got its usual stellar goaltending performance from Hobey Baker Award candidate David Brown as he stopped 26 of 27 shots while freshman sniper Ryan Thang scored a pair of goals with Mark Van Guilder and Dan Kissel adding solo goals in the victory. Ryan Jones scored the lone goal on Brown; a second-period power-play tally that came after the Irish had built a 4-0 lead.
The Notre Dame victory improves the third-ranked Irish to 21-5-1 overall and 15-3-1 in the CCHA for 31 points in league play. The 15 conference wins ties a Notre Dame record for conference wins set twice in the program’s 17 seasons in the league. Miami goes to 18-9-2 overall and 13-6-2 in league play.
As has been the Irish trademark all season, they got on the scoreboard early and often, notching three first period goals with two coming in the first five minutes of the game.
“We’ve been really good in the first period this season,” said head coach Jeff Jackson. “Either we get that first goal or have some early jump and takeover the tempo of the game. We had that tonight.”
Van Guilder got the Irish on the board just 1:56 into the game when he punched the rebound of a Garrett Regan shot past RedHawk goaltender Charlie Effinger for his 14th of the season. Regan started the play along the left wing boards at the Miami blue line when he burst past a RedHawk defender and moved in on Effinger. Regan fired a shot through a screen that was stopped, but Van Guilder was trailing the play and tucked it home to give the Irish a 1-0 lead.
The goal marked the 21st time this season that the Irish scored first in a game. They are now 17-3-1 when they take the lead first.
Kissel scored the eventual game winner less than three minutes later when the freshman left wing took a pass from defenseman Tom Sawatske at the Miami blue line and burst down the right side. His wrist shot from the right wing circle beat Effinger at 4:54 for his fifth goal of the season.
Thang scored the first of two power-play goals on the night at 10:23 when converted a feed from Kevin Deeth on the right side for his 14th goal of the year to give the Irish a 3-0 lead after one period of play.
Thang was at it again in the second period when he scored his second of the night and team-high 15th goal of the year at 5:29 to make it 4-0.
The freshman right wing took a feed from fellow defenseman Brett Blatchford and ripped a wrist shot high to the short side, tucking it under the cross bar. The goal was the fourth on 12 shots versus Effinger and sent the RedHawk goaltender to the bench in favor of Jeff Zatkoff.
“Ryan (Thang) is what he is,” said Jackson. “He’s a physical, power forward with good hands and he’s smart. That power-play goal was impressive. He went short side and top shelf. That’s a pro shot. He’s been consistent like that all season. When he has a good game, you better keep your head up because he can shoot the puck with the best of them.”
“I wanted to go to the short side, in that general area,” said Thang in describing his goal. “The puck went off my skate and I just turned and shot. I knew I had to go top shelf and it went off the crossbar and in. It was a bit of a lucky goal but I was shooting in that general area.
The RedHawks fired 13 shots at Brown in the Irish goal and finally put one past him as Ryan Jones beat the senior goaltender on a power play at 11:27 of the period for his 18th goal of the year to make it 4-1. From there, Brown kept the visitors at bay on the way to a 26-save night and his 20th victory of the season.
“This was a huge win for our team. This was a battle for first place,” said Brown. “This wasn’t just for two points, it was a four-point game. It was a tough battle all night and I was ecstatic that we were able to come out on top tonight.”
In the game, Notre Dame was 2-for-7 on the power play while the RedHawks were 1-for-6. Effinger played the first 25:29 of the game, making eight saves while taking the loss. Zatkoff played 33:03 and held the Irish off the scoreboard while making 13 saves.
The win gives the Irish a 9-1 record versus teams that are ranked in the top 15 in the nation this season. Every one is an important one according to Jackson.
“We haven’t been through a lot of these big games,” said Jackson. “The seniors had some experience when they were in the NCAA Tournament a couple of years ago and may have felt a little of this. Now they are a big part of it. We are inexperienced in playing this type of game and every time we play in one it helps us for the next time.
The next time comes on Saturday night when the Irish face the RedHawks in game two of the series. Face off at the Joyce Center is 7:05 p.m.