SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The Northern Michigan Wildcats used an early 2-0 lead to snap a five-game skid against Notre Dame, upsetting the No. 8 Irish, 3-2, at the Joyce Center on Saturday night.
Despite being outshot 38-18, the Wildcats’ defense (3-5-1; 2-3-0-0 CCHA) was able to limit the quality chances of a struggling Notre Dame offense that has been averaging just 2.30 goals per game.
“Part of the problem right now is, since we’re not scoring, we’re looking for the perfect shot,” said Irish coach Jeff Jackson. “That’s one of the unfortunate parts of when you’re in a scoring slump. We’re maybe not shooting when we should, or being too fine with our shooting. That’s one of the things that we’re dealing with.
“Tonight, I thought we played one of our better games of the season. But, when you’re not getting that offensive production, every little mistake is magnified. Whether it’s a turnover or a missed assignment on a faceoff, penalties are magnified.
“I thought our guys played well. I thought they played hard and executed well. We made a few mistakes and they ended up in our net.”
“I tell people, when you go into games, you go in to win both games and win every night you play,” said NMU coach Walt Kyle. “But the truth is, on the road, it’s very difficult to win, particularly here. It’s a tough, tough environment. When you get the first night, it allows you to come back tomorrow.”
“It’s huge for our team, for sure, especially the three CCHA points against Notre Dame on the road,” said NMU goaltender Brian Stewart. “We came in here last year and got killed both games. To come into tonight and to get that lead early, we kept the lead all game.”
Northern took advantage of a pair of early goals and received a stellar performance from Stewart, who has struggled so far this year, for his first win of the season.
Stewart stopped 36 Notre Dame chances and was key in an NMU penalty kill that allowed one goal in five chances.
“We’ve seen a difference in him all week,” explained Kyle. “I don’t know what it was, but mentally, he was just struggling a little at the beginning. You’re under a different kind of pressure when a year ago, he’s not expected to do anything, and this year, his senior year, he wants to do well to see what lies ahead of him.”
“It was my first win of the season,” said Stewart. “Personally, I’ve struggled a bit at the start, and it was really good for game and my confidence to get that win. When we got that 2-0 lead early, and built on that, it made it a lot easier for me.
“I was just more relaxed and calm on the ice, and I think that helped me a lot.”
It was a third-period five-on-three chance for Notre Dame where Stewart and company made their biggest stand and was the probable key to a Wildcats’ victory.
Leading 3-1, midway through the final period, the Wildcats’ penalty kill stepped up and preserved their two-goal lead by allowing Notre Dame’s power play only a pair of shots. That shut down came in handy, as the Irish would pull to within one at the 11:44 mark of the period.
“It hurt us,” said Jackson of the failed five-on-three chance. “Obviously, you want to capitalize on those situations. We had opportunities to do more on the power play, I thought. That could have been the difference for us tonight, scoring a second power-play goal.”
“They did a very good job,” added Kyle regarding the penalty kill. “You always start with your penalty kill in goal, and Stewart was the guy I thought did the job.”
Freshman goaltender Mike Johnson stopped 15 of the 18 shots fired at him, but gave up a couple of soft ones in his second loss of the season.
“He played good, not great,” said Jackson of his rookie netminder. “He may have been able to stop that second goal, but I thought he played fine. But every goal he gives up is magnified because it’s a one-goal game.”
Northern Michigan jumped out to an early lead on a pair of first-period goals.
Junior center Jared Brown notched his first goal of the year, thanks to a turnover at neutral ice. Chad Pietila forced the loose puck and fed it to Kyle Follmer. He sent a pass to Brown, who had Mike Maltese on the wing as part of a two-on-one. Brown wristed a shot from the right circle that bounced off Johnson’s glove and trickled over the goal line for a 1-0 NMU lead.
Ray Kaunisto gave the Wildcats a 2-0 advantage at 12: 11 of the opening period, blasting a shot through traffic from between the circles for his third tally of the year.
After a hooking penalty to Jared Brown, the Irish got on the scoreboard with a nifty power-play goal. Brett Blatchford’s shot from the point was tipped into the net by Kevin Deeth at 14:02 to cut the NMU lead to 2-1. Calle Ridderwall added an assist.
“Notre Dame got their stick on the puck on the one power-play goal, and it just got deflected,” said Stewart. “For the most part, the defense played the rebounds really well and did a great job.”
The Wildcats scored the game winner at 5:09 of the third period, thanks to a lightning-quick power-play goal. After a Teddy Ruth cross-checking penalty, Mark Olver won the draw to Erik Gustafsson in the Irish zone. He fed a short pass to Matt Butcher, who walked in on goal and fired a wrist shot over the glove of Johnson just eight seconds into the power play.
“The goal we got early in the third was kind of opportunistic,” said Kyle. “We scored the power-play goal right off the bat. When you get opportunities, you have to make the most of it.”
Notre Dame scored their final goal of the night at 11:44 of the last period. Ridderwall notched his fifth goal of the year on a blast from the right circle.
The teams conclude the series tomorrow afternoon. Game time is set for 4:05 p.m.