DETROIT — With smothering defense and senior goaltender David Brown’s sixth shutout of the season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish beat the Lake Superior State Lakers, 3-0, to advance to the CCHA championship game for just the second time in program history, the first since 1982.
Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said that the contest was everything he expected “with [Jeff] Jakaitis in goal and Lake Superior’s tough defensive style. They deserve a lot of credit for the run that they had in the playoffs, and as I anticipated, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
Defenseman Wes O’Neill’s third goal of the season and his third in as many games, a power-play marker in the first period, proved to be the game winner. Fellow blueliner Brock Sheahan scored even-strength in the second, and Christian Hanson had the empty-net goal in the third.
While much was made of the goaltending match — LSSU’s Jeff Jakaitis has the second-best save percentage in the nation, ND’s David Brown the country’s best goals-against average — in the end Brown wasn’t tested enough to make the contest especially interesting. The Irish outshot the Lakers 29-17, and most of the game was played from outside the Irish blue line down to the Laker net.
“If you’re going up a great goaltender like Jakaitis,” said Jackson, “then you’d better make sure that you shut them down because you may have to win the game one-nothing. That’s almost what it was.”
“We just didn’t have our ‘A’ game,” said Laker head coach Jim Roque. “I don’t know if emotionally we couldn’t get back up … We had a couple guys only practice once this week. We just didn’t have enough in the tank.”
The Lakers, who upset No. 3 seed Miami on the road to get to Detroit, have struggled with a bench shortened by injuries and illness in recent weeks. Roque said that he was also concerned about how his young team would match some of Notre Dame’s more experienced players.
“The one area that concerned us all week … is that they’re stronger than us physically right now. We have four freshmen back there at defense that had a hard time with some shifts down low. Two areas of our game that probably that kind of hurt us the second half of the year [are] our power play … and faceoffs. They [ND] controlled the pucks on a lot of faceoffs.”
Nowhere was that more evident than in the first period, when the Irish outshot the Lakers 14-4 and solved Jakaitis on the power play at 9:46. With Ryan Baird in the penalty box for hooking at 8:15, it didn’t take ND long to set up a well-cycled man advantage. Noah Babin passed from near the blue line to Mark Van Guilder at the top of the left circle; Van Guilder skated in and dropped back to O’Neill, whose one-timer from the point beat Jeff Jakaitis on the short side.
The Laker defense did a better job of limiting Notre Dame’s shots for the rest of the game, but a defensive breakdown with heavy traffic in front of the LSSU net near the midway point of the second period gave Sheahan an opportunity to score. Erik Condra centered a pass from behind the Laker net to Sheahan at the top of the slot. Sheahan immediately fired and took advantage of Laker Dominic Osman, who served inadvertently as both a redirect man for the goal and a screen.
“I couldn’t see where Jakaitis was because of the traffic in front of the net, so I was trying to shoot blocker-side and it happened to hit … off his leg and go blocker-side,” said Sheahan.
From the halfway point of the third period until the end of the game, Brown had to earn his keep as the Lakers increased the pressure. With roughly 10 minutes to go, Brown made a great save on Trent Campbell with Lakers buzzing near the crease, and then less than two minutes later stoned Dan Eves has the Laker broke in and shot five-hole. At 15:48, Brown made a highlight-reel glove save on a left-point rocket from Simon Gysbers.
Jackson said that the low-scoring, defense-driven game isn’t something to be concerned about as the Irish (30-6-3) head to Saturday’s title match against the winner of tonight’s Michigan State-Michigan contest.
“We’re playing teams that keep a lot of people back. If you don’t have your defensemen activate, you’re not going to score. Everybody’s got four guys back in the neutral zone, five guys back. We spend a lot of time working on that stuff because we’re not going to get scoring chances unless our defensemen do get involved.”
The Lakers (21-18-3), who were making their first appearance at Joe Louis arena in 11 years, will play in Saturday’s third-place game against the loser of the second semifinal.
Roque said that the Lakers were “a little tired” in the contest, but promised “to recover, show our fans what Laker hockey is about tomorrow, whoever we play.”
Roque credited not only his players, but the whole Laker program for this season’s success.
“Obviously, I’m very proud of our team,” said Roque. “Our guys came a long way this season. I’m not only proud of our team. I just want people to know that I’m so proud of our university and our support staff. We overcome a lot of things at our university to get here. We don’t have a lot of things that a lot of schools have — and that’s not because the school doesn’t want to give it to us. That’s just where it is at Lake State.”
Roque became visibly emotional when discussing the impending departure of his senior class. “It’ll be our last game together as a group, as a team. That’s the hard part for our team, but I know those guys will show up for Jeff [Jakaitis] and the rest of the seniors.”
The CCHA championship tournament concludes Saturday in Joe Louis Arena with the 3:30 p.m. third-place game, and the title contest at 7:00.