FAIRBANKS, Alaska — On Friday at the Carlson Center, Notre Dame Friday night iced its first-ever CCHA regular-season title, as freshman Ryan Thang scored the only goal of the game and David Brown kicked out all 28 shots he faced to give Notre Dame the 1-0 road win.
That, coupled with a 3-2 Michigan loss at Lake Superior State, eliminated the Wolverines to give the Irish their first conference title in the 39-year history of the program.
“Obviously this is huge for the program, since it’s the first time that Notre Dame has won a championship,” said head coach Jeff Jackson. “It’s been a tough month for us. At times it’s stressed us all out, including me and because of it we’ve played with stress and for the next three games we won’t have that.”
The win ran the Irish’s unbeaten streak to eight games (6-0-2) and improved them to 25-5-3 overall and 19-3-3 in CCHA play with three games remaining. Alaska falls to 9-16-6 on the year and 7-13-5 in conference play. Since sweeping Alaska at Notre Dame the weekend of Dec. 2-3, the Irish are 14-2-2 with just one loss coming in CCHA action.
Brown, Notre Dame’s Hobey Baker candidate, set the tone early for the Irish as he stopped Braden Walls on a two-on-one just 37 seconds into the game.
“It was a nice play by Alaska . They had an odd-man rush and I saw him go wide,” said Brown, who tied the Irish single-season win mark for wins with his 24th victory of the season. “I didn’t know if they could get the pass across. They did and he (Walls) had a step on the defenseman. I saw him pull it to his backhand and I just tried to cut down the angle and followed the puck. I slid across and was fortunate enough to make the save.”
The two teams would trade nine shots and three power-play chances in the stanza with neither team scoring.
Brown kept the Irish alive in the second period as they were outshot 15-6 in the stanza, but the score remained tied at zero.
“That’s the way David has played all season long,” said Jackson. There have been nights like this all season where he has made the difference. That’s the sign of a great goaltender. The way he played tonight was not a surprise to me. It was that type of game at both ends of the ice. Goaltending was a huge factor for both teams.
Thang would step up to take his role as the hero for the Irish at 4:47 of the final period. With Alaska defenseman Tyler Eckford carrying the puck through his zone, the freshman from Edina , Minn. , swooped in and stripped the Nanook defenseman in the left wing circle. He broke in on goaltender Wylie Rogers, faked him to the ice and slid the puck through his pads for his 17th of the season.
“I saw his eyes, he kind of looked over to his wing,” said Thang, who leads the Irish in goals. “In our forecheck, we want our sticks in the lane and force him to the middle. It’s something that we worked on all week in practice.
“I came in and faked a shot to freeze him a little bit. I went to the right and shot it five hole and when he moved across his pads opened and it slid in.”
The Irish defense played its best in the third, limiting Alaska to just four shots in the period. When defenseman Nathan Fornataro was given a major for hitting from behind with four minutes left, the Irish had the power play for the final four minutes.
Alaska pulled Rogers from goal with 1:39 left but could not score as the Irish held the Nanooks at bay as time wound down.
Notre Dame was outshot by a 28-24 margin with Brown getting his fourth shutout of the season and 10th of his career with 28 saves. Rogers finished the night with 23 stops in the Nanook nets.
“It was a tough game tonight. It had a playoff intensity with both teams battling to the end,” said Jackson . “That’s the only thing I know about Alaska. Every time we play them, it’s a difficult challenge. They compete. They battle. They are a hard team to compete against.”
“Winning a title is a huge, huge accomplishment and I’m fortunate and happy to be part of it with a great group of guys,” said Brown. “I feel honored to have participated in something so great and it will hang from the rafters for the Irish program for years to come.”
Scoring the winning goal was special for Thang. “It’s a thrill to do it,” said the Irish left wing. “But it’s my linemates; David Brown and the rest of the team. Especially the seniors, they’ve been through it all. It’s awesome that we finally have something to show for all the hard work we’ve put in this year. It’s a special time in the program’s history.”