COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — It took 40 years, but the Notre Dame Fighting Irish finally made it to a Frozen Four.
Taking the next step in building a hockey tradition in South Bend, the Irish beat the Michigan State University Spartans 3-1 in a rematch of last year’s Midwest Regional Final Saturday night.
Not only do the Irish make program history in punching their ticket to Denver, but they also make tournament history, becoming the first-ever fourth seed to advance to the Frozen Four since the advent of the 16-team tournament in 2003.
“Obviously we’re thrilled,” said Irish coach Jeff Jackson. “This is a step forward from last year and it’s part of the process in building a great program. [I'm] extremely proud of the kids for what they’ve handled; a lot of adversity in the second half of the year and they still stayed strong as a group.”
Fittingly, the Irish had to overcome adversity over the course of the game as well, fighting off a second period disallowed goal that would have given them the lead. They shook it off and rebounded in the third, taking the lead for.
“It was another tough call but honestly we’ve had that happen a few times to us,” said senior captain and tournament MVP Mark Van Guilder. “We were real calm on the bench when we were sitting there waiting for the call and decided either way, we’ve got to keep coming.”
The first period was a scoreless affair, but Christian Hanson, who scored two goals for the Irish yesterday, broke the scoreless tie 2:43 into the middle frame. Hanson got the puck out of the corner, tried and failed on the wraparound, but got his own rebound and shoved it five-hole on Spartans’ goaltender Jeff Lerg (23 saves).
“Garrett Regan made a great play tonight behind the net to get the puck loose and I was able to just wrap it around and got the rebound,” said Hanson.
However, the Spartans tied it up with about 11 minutes remaining in the period when last year’s Frozen Four MVP Justin Abdelkader took a pass from Tim Kennedy in the right circle and wristed it past Irish netminder Jordan Pearce (20 saves).
It was five minutes later when Notre Dame’s go-ahead goal was disallowed. Evan Rankin took advantage of a misplayed rebound and shot the puck past a sprawled Lerg, but it was later ruled that the goaltender was prevented from playing the puck thanks to the presence of Irish forward Kevin Deeth in the crease.
From that point on, with both goaltenders playing well, it was a question of who would get the next goal.
“At 1-1, you knew the next goal was going to be a critical goal,” said Spartans coach Rick Comley.
Much to his team’s dismay, it would be the Irish who put it in.
“We unfortunately turned the puck over and they converted it,” said Comley. “We did it to them last year; they did it to us this year.”
That turnover ended up turning into a Ben Ryan pass from the corner to Van Guilder, who wristed the puck over Lerg’s right shoulder with 5:54 remaining in the game. 50 seconds later, a Teddy Ruth slap shot from the point put the Irish up 3-1 to seal the victory.
“We knew exactly the type of game they would play and Jeff had them ready and they played and made it tough in areas, but it was a very good hockey game,” said Comley.
“I give [my players] a lot of credit for their resiliency, but that’s kind of the spirit of Notre Dame,” said Jackson. “They’re kind of bred that way while they’re there.”
The Irish will bring that resiliency with them on their return trip to Colorado in a few weeks, when they return to play CCHA foe and top-seed University of Michigan Wolverines April 10 in Denver at Pepsi Center.