GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — After taking a two-goal lead on three shots in the first five minutes of play, it took the Fighting Irish another 90 minutes and 16 seconds — plus a man advantage — to score the goal that beat Alabama-Huntsville in double overtime, 3-2, giving Notre Dame its first-ever NCAA tournament victory.
Freshman Ryan Thang had the game-winner at 15:18 in the second OT, a shot from the left circle from classmates Kyle Lawson and Brett Blatchford that beat Charger goaltender Marc Narduzzi over his left shoulder.
“I just rolled out of the boards, and their goalie was on fire with his glove, so I knew I should go high blocker side,” said Thang. “I kind of lost it and then the water bottle flew off and I knew it was in.”
Playing in his final game, senior UAH goaltender Narduzzi was more than on fire. After freshman Blake MacNicol gave up those two early Irish goals, Narduzzi came in and played more than 90 minutes, making 49 saves on 50 shots.
“Everything was like a beach ball tonight, and it was pretty easy to make those saves,” said Narduzzi. The defense played great. I gave up a couple of bad rebound and they bailed me out.”
When the top team in the CCHA drew the bottom team from the CHA for the first game in the Midwest regional, many folks in the college hockey know thought that this game was a gimme — but not Jeff Jackson.
“Well, I just hope that nobody asks me about the fact that this wasn’t easy,” said the Notre Dame head coach, “because I knew it wasn’t going to be coming into this.
“Alabama gave us pretty much everything I expected them to, especially when we took the two-nothing lead. I knew we were in trouble.
“It was tough for us to generate scoring chances, and when we did, the kid we put in net played out of his head, so they deserve a lot of credit.”
UAH skipper Doug Ross said he decided to start MacNicol because of the freshman’s performance in the Chargers’ come-from-behind 5-4 overtime win in the CHA title game March 11.
“We were staying with what we were successful with,” said Ross. “Blake played good — really good for us — against Robert Morris and kept us in that one, so we thought we’d go with him and if he let a couple in, then we’d go back with Marc. I think Marc likes to come off the bench and play sometimes. He knows how to do it.”
Josh Sciba and Thang had the first-period goals that gave the Irish that early lead. At 3:18, Sciba scored unassisted on a play that began with Wes O’Neill keeping the puck in the Charger net. O’Neill tapped the puck back on a UAH clearing attempt, and Sciba emerged from a scrum behind the cage to shoot from the left circle, beating MacNicol five-hole for the 1-0 lead.
At 4:26, Thang netted his first of the game from the right circle, with a shot that also squibbed between MacNicol’s legs. That prompted the goalie change and a change in the Charger momentum. Trailing 2-0 midway through the second, UAH pulled to within one on Dominik Rozman’s tally, a shot deflected off a ND defender and into the Irish net. Six minutes later, Tom Train dug the puck out of the corner and went stick-to-stick with teammate Cale Tanaka, exchanging pucks. Tanaka fired from just outside the crease to surprise Irish goaltender David Brown with UAH’s tying goal.
“The first goal was really frustrating,” said Brown. “I thought it was going to my blocker side and it ended up going to the left side and I think went five-hole. The second goal was a good shot. He rolled out of the corner, and I was positionally in the right position, but he beat me with a good shot.
“It was really frustrating having those two goals go in back-to-back, it kind of got them back there in the game, but…I just stayed focused. You can’t let anything like that rattle you or get you off track. We regrouped in between periods and the guys were great and supported me and kept the puck out of our end for the most part for the rest of our game. I just tried to do my part, especially in overtime, and my time came to make a few saves, to contribute to the win.”
Both teams had their chances through the third period, and each squad had an overtime power play. At 14:11 in the first OT, Wes O’Neill went to the box for interference and Brown earned his keep; the Chargers outshot the Irish 12-8 in the frame.
O’Neill said that the Irish never entertained the thought of losing. “I think we just stayed focused and I think there’s some confidence in the room. Coach came in and he was real calm and just told us, ‘Guys, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. Just go out there and play your game and it’ll happen.’
“That’s what we did, and I don’t think there was a doubt in our minds that it wasn’t going to eventually go in.”
Thang said that the Irish didn’t play their best game, but Jackson said that the tough win is what NCAA tournament hockey is all about.
“You go up against teams you’ve never seen before, to play a style that you’ve never seen before, against a goalie you’ve never seen before, with officials that you’ve never had before, and all those factors cause a lot of — you know, it’s different,” said Jackson. “We know what it’s like to play against common opponents and the CCHA’s officials and things like that, but it’s different.”
Notre Dame (32-6-3) advances to play Saturday night’s quarterfinal contest, while Alabama-Huntsville finishes the season 13-20-3 after making its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” said Ross, who coached his last game after 25 years behind the Charger bench. “They really played with all their heart and all their spirit.”
Ross said he was especially proud of the 10-member senior class. “They represented our school really well, really well against a very fine hockey team that’s well coached by Jeff Jackson. Jeff is a heck of a coach, he’s got a great team, and I hope he goes all the way.
“I’m proud of them, extremely proud of them, and I think they ought to walk out of here with their heads high.”