DENVER — In their first-ever Frozen Four appearance, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are heading to the championship game after defeating the No. 1 seed Michigan Wolverines, 5-4, in overtime.
Freshman Calle Ridderwall — Notre Dame’s fourth-line left winger — was the OT hero, picking up senior defenseman Dan VeNard’s rebound at 5:14 and one-timing it past Michigan goaltender Bryan Hogan for the game-winner.
Ridderwall, a native of Stockholm, Sweden, said that he was in the right place at the right time to send the Irish to Saturday’s title game against Boston College.
Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson summed up the contest perfectly in just seven words:
“It was kind of a crazy game.”
Notre Dame, the No. 13 seed overall in the NCAA tournament and this year’s fourth-place team in the CCHA regular season and championship tourney, led the No. 1 Michigan Wolverines 3-0 after one.
At the start of the second, Michigan replaced starting goaltender Billy Sauer — whose goals-against average and save percentage were among the top netminders in the country all season — with freshman Bryan Hogan, and the Wolverines netted two unanswered goals in the second to bring the score to 3-2.
The teams exchanged markers in the third, the Irish dominated the overtime and the fourth line combined with seldom-mentioned blueliner to win the game.
“There was at no time I felt comfortable in that game,” said Jackson. “They’re just too explosive of a team to feel comfortable.”
“If someone would have told me that it would take five goals to win this game,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson, “I would have thought that they were not thinking straight, and Notre Dame doesn’t often give up four goals.”
The Irish led 3-0 after one on two quick, early goals and another marker with less than a minute left in the stanza. Ridderwall opened the scoring at the five-minute mark, making a nice move around a Michigan defender to skate in alone on Sauer for the 1-0 lead.
At 5:42, Irish senior captain Mark Van Guilder made it 2-0 on a shot from the left dot. Then just as a Notre Dame penalty was expiring, sophomore Ryan Thang picked up a loose puck inside the Irish blue line, broke in alone, and scored shorthanded and unassisted.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the start that we wanted,” said Berenson, “but I like the way our team regrouped in the second period and even in the third period, and then it was anyone’s game.”
Crashing the net, senior Chad Kolarik took a sweet drop pass from classmate and captain Kevin Porter and wristed the puck over the glove of Notre Dame’s Jordan Pearce at 8:48 to make it a 3-1 game, and freshman Matt Rust picked up classmate Aaron Palushaj’s rebound at 9:03 to cut the Irish lead to one at the end of two.
Kolarik’s second goal of the night — his 30th of the season — erased Notre Dame’s lead altogether on the Michigan power play at 2:16 in the third.
Kevin Deeth’s backhander at 11:30 from Dan Kissell and Ian Cole gave the Irish their brief 4-3 lead, but Wolverine freshman Carl Hagelin banked the puck off of Pearce’s left skate at 11:30 to tie it again.
The Wolverines had a golden opportunity for a game-winner late in the third, when Deeth was sent to the penalty box for obstruction hooking. At 17:06, Deeth upended Aaron Palushaj in spectacular fashion in front of the Irish net, sending the Michigan freshman several feet into the air over Pearce. Palushaj landed belly-down on the ice and slid into the corner undamaged.
Michigan was unable to create anything on the power play, and the remainder of the period was played safely by both teams, but it was safety last for the Irish in overtime. Notre Dame came out with every bit of momentum in OT, dominating puck possession with eight shots on goal to Michigan’s four.
“We just said that we have one overtime to play for a national championship game,” said Van Guilder. “I don’t think there’s too much else that you have to say.
“The game was back and forth all along, so we knew that if we got some momentum right away and got some good cycle shifts, we’d be fine.”
“I knew it was going to be a tight game,” said Jackson. “It just took a little time for it to tighten up. Once again, I think our guys responded — didn’t faze them. Our guys handled it with calm and cool, which enabled us to play on, and we’re awful proud of that.”
Pearce finished the game with 29 saves on 33 shots. Sauer stopped six of nine, and Hogan — who had played just five career games before coming off the bench — stopped 18 of the 20 shots he saw.
Notre Dame (27-15-4) will face Boston College (24-11-8), the No. 6 seed overall in the NCAA tournament, in the title game Saturday. It’s the first championship game for the Irish, the Eagles their ninth.
The puck drops at 5:00 p.m. local time.