DETROIT — It would be too easy to say that the Irish got a little lucky in capturing their first-ever CCHA playoff championship on St. Patrick’s Day, but the mistake by Michigan goaltender Billy Sauer that led to Jason Paige’s game-winning goal was at the very least a little fortuitous.
And the magic post that Wolverine Jack Johnson hit with 10 minutes left in the third didn’t hurt either.
“I kind of look at the post as an extension of my equipment,” said Notre Dame goaltender David Brown, who made 31 saves in his 29th win of the season, earning him the Bill Beagan Trophy for the tournament’s most valuable player. “They don’t have anything else to shoot at.
“That’s the way it went. The goal they scored went off the post as well, so it kind of evened out that way.”
Paige’s game-winning marker at 8:52 in the third was the end result of Sauer’s turnover in front of the net. Garrett Regan fired the puck from high in the slot and hit Sauer in the chest. Sauer came out of the crease to play the big rebound as Paige was skating in to collect it, but misplayed the puck as he tried to sandwich it between himself and the blade of his stick. Paige skated right, stole the puck, and put it into the empty net behind the sophomore netminder.
“That’s a tough goal to give up,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “He normally would handle that rebound easily. He gave us a chance in the game. He played hard and he played well and we just couldn’t get that goal back for him.”
The Wolverines dictated the play in the first period, with 11 shots to Notre Dame’s nine and constant pressure that culminated in Kevin Porter’s goal with 5.2 seconds left in the stanza to give Michigan the 1-0 lead after one.
T.J. Hensick passed out from the left corner to Jack Johnson in the right circle, and Johnson’s shot resulted in an accidental blocker save by Brown, who was screened by players a knot of players from each team near the right post. Porter picked up the rebound and shot from the slot, nicking the crossbar and beating Brown over the goalie’s left shoulder.
“Throughout the year, we’ve given up goals, we’ve been down, and it seems like every time we’ve come back,” said Irish sophomore Erik Condra. “We’re just calm, and Coach keeps us calm on the bench. You can’t get too high or too low and Michigan is a high-tempo team, and when they score one goal, they want to score two.
“We just had to control their flurry in the first period when they came out flying. Once we controlled that we got back to playing our game.”
It was Condra who evened the score for the Irish at 15:58, popping the puck up and over Sauer to make it a 1-1 game. Kevin Deeth tried to wrap the puck in from behind the Michigan net, but the puck hit Hensick’s skate and Sauer’s leg before winding up on Condra’s tape.
“It was a game that took different directions,” said Berenson. “I liked our first period. I thought we had some good chances even though we took several penalties and that got us on our heels. But the second period, I thought, was all Notre Dame. They got back in the game with an important goal. It was a close game, and then it was anyone’s game in the third period.
“They’re a good team, hard-working team, good defensive team, the goalie plays well obviously, and the goals are precious in a game like this.”
The win was the 31st of the season for regular-season champ Notre Dame, a team that finished tied for eighth in the CCHA last year with 13 wins. In 2004-05, the Irish had five total wins to their credit.
Brown said that the team knew early in the season, after beating Boston College 7-1 in Boston, that this year might be very different from any recent history.
“We really went in there and executed systems that Coach laid out for us and everyone bought in. There was no selfish play. We were firing on all cylinders. We really were able to gain a lot of confidence in ourselves.
“Then coming back the next night, following up in Providence … we knew we had something special. We gained a lot of confidence that weekend. We knew that we could accomplish what we did tonight.”
Brown also said that second-year head coach Jeff Jackson is the biggest reason for Notre Dame’s success this season.
“As soon as Coach came, he instilled the sense of professionalism that he brought with him. He really helped us to regain that pride in the program that we’d been missing, and changed the culture that we had currently. He improved that dramatically and really had everyone take more pride in wearing the Irish uniform.
“He’s been successful at every level of hockey, and he brought that great knowledge to our program and was able to communicate that to every position — to myself as a goalie, defense, offense. The guys really just bought into executing the system and playing with that extra sense of pride.
“He started the ball rolling in the second half last year, and we really had a full year under him this year which really helped. We hit the ground running at the beginning of the year, which we wanted to do, and I haven’t looked back since.”
The Irish (31-6-3) will be a No. 1 seed in their second-ever trip to the NCAA tournament, while the Wolverines (26-13-1) will likely be a No. 2 seed.
“I feel good about our team,” said Berenson. “We should take something out of this game and this weekend. I think we’re going in the right direction.
“If we have the right attitude next week, no matter who play or where we play, we could be a factor in the tournament.”