COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Sometimes, not being a top seed has its benefits.
The No. 13 seed Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the lowest-seeded at-large team in the tournament and last year’s overall two seed, enjoyed the lack of pressure and upset the No. 4 overall seed University of New Hampshire Wildcats, 7-3 at the NCAA West Regional at the Colorado Springs World Arena.
“We’ve got to play the same way [Alabama-Huntsville played us last year], our tournament lives are on the line,” said senior captain Mark VanGuilder. “We thought we might have been done [earlier]; we went into Northern [Michigan] thinking we had to win.”
Due to a quirk in the PairWise, the Irish didn’t need to win that game, and they didn’t, but took care of business on Friday, more than assuring they get to live another day.
Sophomore Dan Kissel used Wildcats’ defensemen Joe Charlebois as a screen and wristed his eighth marker of the year stick-side on New Hampshire goaltender Kevin Regan 13:09 into the second period for the eventual game-winner.
The first period, however, was a back-and-forth affair. Though the Wildcats outshot the Irish 14-6, the teams came out of the opening frame knotted at two.
The Wildcats started off the scoring just over a minute in, when Jerry Pollastrone backhanded a shot through traffic that beat Irish netminder Jordan Pearce for his 14th goal of the year.
However, the Irish responded about 90 seconds later when Ian Cole took a pass across from Ben Brian and whipped it past Regan for a power-play tally.
UNH fought back, however, taking back the lead a little over three minutes later, when Pollastrone scored his second of the game, knocking a Brad Flaishans rebound past Pearce (32 saves).
It looked like UNH would continue to hold the lead until the Irish scored late on a power play with 2:35 left to play in the first on Kyle Lawson’s fifth goal of the year to tie it at two. From behind the net, Kevin Deeth passed the puck out front to a waiting Lawson in the slot, who one-timed it past Regan (27 saves).
“They obviously did a good job on the power play,” said Wildcats’ coach Dick Umile. “They did a great job executing and you’ve got to give them credit for that.”
“It was a crazy start for us and in some ways, a positive one,” said his Irish counterpart, Jeff Jackson. “Because with them scoring, we missed a couple of assignments, did a poor job off of face-offs. I don’t think we were as ready for them off the draw as we should have been, but, the positive thing is that we came back and responded both times and I think that was probably the real difference in the game, is the ability to come back and score each time.”
After being chewed out by senior assistant captain Dan VeNard, the Irish carried the momentum over from their late goal and took their first lead of the game 2:39 into the second on Christian Hanson’s 11th goal of the season. Hanson, left wide open in front of the net, knocked a bobbled rebound past Regan for the 3-2 lead.
Then, seconds after holding the Wildcats scoreless on a five-on-three advantage, Kissel scored to make it a 4-2 game.
“That was a key moment in the game,” said Umile. “We didn’t score on the five-on-three, they came down and scored the fourth goal to go up 4-2 so that was a key moment, that whole exchange.”
“It was a huge momentum goal,” agreed Jackson.
Still, the Wildcats were not to be held back, as freshman Phil DeSimone got the Wildcats back within one with about seven to play in the middle frame with his third of the year, shooting a seeing-eye puck through traffic past Pearce to make it a 4-3 game.
The Irish kept on fighting, though, and extended their lead back to two 23 seconds into the third period on a Ryan Thang shot that clanked off the pipe behind Regan and in the net.
After that, the Wildcats just couldn’t put the puck into the net and hurt any chance of a comeback with a Flaishans checking-from-behind call with just under five minutes to play in the third.
“I think it was kind of up and down all the way in to the middle of the third, I’d say,” said New Hampshire senior captain Matt Fornataro. “They got some breaks and were able to capitalize on them.”
The Wildcats were able to draw a late penalty to make it 4-on-4 and pulled Regan, but the Irish sealed the deal with two empty net goals; one by Deeth and the other by Hanson.
With the victory, the Irish advance to the Regional final on Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. MT against either Colorado College or Michigan State.