DETROIT — After 58 minutes of shots off goalposts, great netminding and fruitless goalmouth scrambles that only yielded one goal, Notre Dame and Northern Michigan exploded in the final two minutes with offensive success that had been missing the rest of the contest.
Ben Ryan’s goal with a minute remaining lifted the Fighting Irish to a 2-1 victory over the Wildcats, only 23 seconds after Nick Sirota was credited with tying the CCHA tournament semifinal with Northern Michigan’s only score of the game at 18:37.
The win in the first semifinal at Joe Louis Arena advances the Fighting Irish to the conference final Saturday night against the winner of Michigan-Alaska later Friday. Northern Michigan will play the loser of that contest in the third-place game earlier on Saturday.
On the deciding goal, Ryan swooped in and lifted a loose puck over Wildcat goaltender Brian Stewart at 19:00 as teammate Ryan Thang banged away at the loose puck.
“It was kind of broken play,” said Ryan of the game-winner. “Erik Condra put the puck wide … and we were saying the whole game, ‘Get guys to the net.’ In the first, we were kind of playing perimeter and we weren’t scoring that way, so the best way to score was to get in [Stewart's] face. We talked about that before the game, and that’s what we did. Ryan Thang was right in front and I had to just come by and put in the rebound.”
“Their guy came got the puck at the blue line and just threw it on net and hit my glove,” said a dejected Stewart. “I went to catch it and didn’t catch it. I ended up dropping it. It’s my fault.”
Only 23 seconds earlier, Sirota was given credit for a goal that appeared to deflect into the net off the shin of Wildcat Mark Olver. With Wildcat netminder Stewart pulled for an extra attacker, Jared Brown’s clutch faceoff win deep in Notre Dame’s end set up a shot from the half-boards by Erik Gustafsson. The puck bounced crazily in front of the net to beat Fighting Irish goaltender Jordan Pearce.
Even though video review awarded the goal to Sirota, at the post-game press conference, Olver said of the play, “I didn’t see it deflect off my leg. I just felt it.”
“The last time we played them it was on Friday the 13th so there were a lot of strange things going on where we scored a whole bunch of power-play goals and I knew it would be a lot more challenging tonight and it was,” said Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson.
“Walt’s (Kyle) a heck of a coach and I thought that Stewart played the way that everybody else has seen him play this year. We were fortunate in the last series to score some goals on him. He was a lot more of what I expected him to be tonight.”
“It was pretty much the kind of game to play to get a win here tonight,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “We knew we were going to have to keep it close. We knew were going to have to get good goaltending from Stewart. As the game went down, we tried to turn it into a 20-minute game, then a 10-minute game — much easier to beat a team like that within that time frame. We got down into the third, got the goal that we needed to, and then we had a breakdown [that led to] the game-winner.”
Pearce’s one-goal effort extended an impressive streak of netminding. Coming into the game, Pearce had only allowed one goal in his last 311 minutes of play. Pearce’s effort Friday night brought that stretch to two goals in 371 minutes.
Pearce turned aside 21 Northern Michigan shots and Stewart was kept plenty busy defending 36 shots from Notre Dame.
“Stewart’s been outstanding for us through the second half of the year and through the playoffs,” said Kyle of his goaltender. “We knew that Notre Dame was going to be a team that would probably have a lot of possession time in our end. We knew that Notre Dame was going to get some shots and that Stewart was going to have to be good. One of the things we talked about is that we knew we needed to have better possession time in their end as the game wore on.
“Because of the time they were spending in our end, we were down to five defensemen. As the game went on, one of the things that helped us defensively is that we were able to have more possession time in their end. We weren’t able to score, but we had some really good opportunities in the third that we weren’t able to score on.”
Notre Dame capitalized on one of its three first-period power plays while managing to blank Northern Michigan on the Wildcats’ two first period opportunities with the man advantage.
Kyle Lawson took Erik Condra’s cross-ice pass at the bottom edge of the faceoff circle to Stewart’s left and snapped the puck by the Wildcat netminder at 4:15 for the opening period’s only score.
Northern Michigan’s best scoring chance in the first period came when Olver split the Notre Dame defense and got off a backhand that Pearce deflected away with his blocker.
Both teams alternated stints of dominance in the second period.
The Wildcats appeared to find their legs early in the middle stanza and peppered Pearce with several early flurries without successfully finding the back of the net.
Notre Dame punched back later in the period when Fighting Irish forward Dan Kissell came within inches of doubling Notre Dame’s lead, clanging a shot off the post to Stewart’s left with only 1:40 remaining in the period.
Ryan’s and Sirota’s late-game heroics completed the scoring.
The semifinal win over Northern Michigan sets up the Irish for a shot at sweeping both the CCHA regular-season championship and the CCHA tournament championship.