BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — The No. 12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (3-2-0; 1-0-0 CCHA) began their title defense of last year’s CCHA crown by holding off a gritty Bowling Green squad, defeating the Falcons 4-2 at the BG Ice Arena on Tuesday night.
The Falcons (1-2-0; 0-1-0 CCHA) played a determined, physical brand of hockey against the defending league champs, generally outworking the Irish in the battle for puck supremacy. However, it was the battle-tested champions who used their talent-laden lineup combined with strong special teams to eventually wear down Bowling Green.
Penalties proved to be the downfall of the Falcons. Bowling Green was whistled for 29 minutes of penalties, keeping the penalty kill on the ice for long stretches.
“We had the right energy and right focus at the start of the game, but ultimately the penalties that we took a little bit of steam out of our team,” said Bowling Green coach Scott Paluch. “We were forced to play too many of the same players early on in the game. We didn’t have the same energy we had and the ability to win a lot of puck battles early in the game wasn’t there as the game wound down.
“In the third period, we just couldn’t win enough one on one battles to create the chances we needed to. A lot of that was due to the amount of time we spent killing penalties in the first half of the game.
“We just couldn’t gain the momentum we needed. The second period was all in their favor. It was kind of a continuation of killing penalties. Five on five — the end result of some of those penalty kills, we just weren’t strong enough to handle it. We were just too tired from killing penalties.”
Notre Dame’s special teams came up big in the contest, tallying a power-play goal and a shorthanded goal while holding the Falcons scoreless on their own power play.
“I give Bowling Green a lot of credit,” said Irish coach Jeff Jackson. “I thought their penalty killing was very aggressive. They made it very difficult for us to generate a whole lot. Our penalty kill — when we’re doing it aggressively the way we need to do it, it makes us a much better team. I’m just trying to get our team to play the same way on five-on-five as we do killing penalties.”
Junior goaltender Jordan Pearce stopped 18 of the 20 shots he faced for the Irish. Half of those shots came in the final stanza of play. The Anchorage, Alaska, native stoned Falcon shooters on at least three occasions in the final period to preserve his third win of the year.
“I told him after the game that one of the things our goalies have to learn to do to become a great goalie, you have to learn how to stop 40 one night and only stop 15, 18, 20 the next,” said Jackson. “It’s a matter of him being focused and staying under control emotionally. I thought he did a good job because he had to make some big saves for us late in the game.
From the opening puck drop, the Falcons looked to give the Irish a battle. Both teams played a physical brand of hockey, mixing in a lot of back-and-forth action.
Freshman Ben Sexton got the ball rolling for Bowling Green with his first collegiate goal at 14:51 of the opening period. He found the puck after a scrum at the side of the Notre Dame net, and chipped it past Jordan Pearce for the 1-0 BG lead. Derek Whitmore and Todd McIlrath assisted on the play.
BG’s Kai Kantola was whistled for a five-minute boarding call on Notre Dame’s Luke Lucyk late in the period, which may have ultimately led to the momentum shift in the direction of Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish used the major to net their first goal of the night. Senior captain Mark Van Guilder picked up a rebound down low off a Ben Ryan shot and scored his fourth marker of the season to tie the game at 17:43. Brock Sheahan added an assist.
The Falcons took a 2-1 lead at 1:50 of the middle period on a transition. Sexton, skating six-on-five thanks to a delayed penalty, picked up a loose puck in his own zone, deked a pair of defenders at neutral ice, then slid a pass over to Whitmore deep in the zone. He one-timed a shot past Pearce that found the twine just under the crossbar. The goal was Whitmore’s third of the season.
The Irish tied the game just over a minute later. Right winger Garrett Regan picked up a free puck on Jimmy Spratt’s doorstep and slid it just past the goal line for his third of the year. Evan Rankin assisted.
Late in the period, the Irish struck again. Rankin, hovering at the left side of the goal, located a misdirected Robin Bergman shot from the right side, and slid it through the goaltender’s five-hole for the 3-2 advantage.
Eric Condra increased the Irish lead to 4-2 with a shorthanded tally at 4:35 of the final period. He picked off a pass at neutral ice, skated down the right side, and fired a wrister over the glove of Spratt to cap the scoring for Notre Dame.
Spratt stopped 26 of the 30 shots he faced in the game. The Irish finished 1 of 8 on the power play, while Bowling Green finished 0 of 5 on the night.