SOUTH BEND, Ind. — One night after an offensive outburst, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish turned back to a familiar formula of defense, special teams, and David Brown in a 3-1 victory over the Alaska Nanooks.
Buoyed by two first-period power-play goals and 21 saves from Brown, the Irish’s victory gave them their first CCHA series sweep since one against Michigan in 1982.
From the outset, it was apparent that this game would not be as easy for the Irish as Friday night’s 7-1 victory. The game was slower and more physical than Game 1, in part due to ice conditions that Irish coach Jeff Jackson termed “absolutely awful.”
With both teams struggling for offense, Ryan Thang’s 18th goal of the season got the Irish on the board first at 17:19 of the first period.
With Alaska’s Jordan Pernarowski off for holding, Jason Paige controlled the faceoff and eventually Kyle Lawson set up Kevin Deeth for a one-timer from the top of the right circle. Nanooks goaltender Wylie Rogers stopped Deeth’s shot, but the rebound squirted to the far side of the crease where Thang was waiting to poke it into an open net. The goal tied Thang for the team lead.
Notre Dame doubled the lead a little over a minute later. With the Nanooks again shorthanded, Irish forward Justin White fired a slapshot into traffic from the point. Defenseman Wes O’Neill got a stick on the shot and deflected it past Rogers at the 18:42 mark of the first period. It was O’Neill’s second goal in two nights after he had not scored in 36 regular-season games.
Alaska had a golden opportunity to answer almost immediately after O’Neill’s goal. Leading scorer Kyle Greentree found himself all alone in front of the net, but Brown turned aside the shot and preserved the two-goal lead for his team.
“I told him he would probably be the guy that would make the difference tonight,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said about Brown. “I don’t do it very often, but every once in a while, I do challenge him, and he always [responds].”
Adam Naglich got Alaska back into the game with a power-play goal midway through the second period. Greentree carried the puck down the left side of the zone before dropping it off to linemate Dion Knelsen, who flipped it across the crease to Naglich. He tucked it in under Brown’s pad for his sixth tally of the season.
Notre Dame extended the lead a little more than four minutes later thanks to some help from the Nanooks. With Notre Dame’s Christian Minella about to be sent to the penalty box for roughing, Jeff Lee took an after-the-whistle penalty to negate a Nanook power play.
On the ensuing four-on-four, Fighting Irish defenseman Tom Sawatske took a shot from the right point. The shot was batted out of the air and down into the net by Deeth for his 17th goal of the season. Referee Matt Shegos reviewed the goal for a potential high-stick, but it was not overturned.
Armed with a two-goal lead, the Irish defense locked the Nanooks down the rest of the game. Alaska managed only two shots the entire third period as the Irish were physically dominant in their own zone.
In the end, it was appropriate for the Fighting Irish’s playoff victory to come at the hands of the Nanooks. Alaska swept Notre Dame in the first round of the playoffs at the Joyce Center last season, and was physically superior the entire series.
Motivated by those losses, the Irish hit the weight room hard over the summer and were an average of 15 pounds heavier this season than last.
Alaska coach Tavis MacMillian was proud of the way his team fought back after Friday night’s blowout, but realized that in the end, Notre Dame’s superior preparation made the difference.
“We played against a really good team,” said MacMillan. “They’re number-one in the country right now, and not only because of what they’ve done right now. What they did in June, July and August last year has them where they are right now. That’s where [Notre Dame] took a whole new step, and that’s where our season was lost.”
For the Nanooks (11-21-6), Saturday’s loss marks the end of the season. Notre Dame (28-6-3), meanwhile, advances to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for the CCHA championship, where it will take on Lake Superior State in the semifinals on Friday.