MANCHESTER, N.H. — National title, please head west.
With a 2-1 victory by Notre Dame over New Hampshire in the NCAA Northeast Regional final at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H., the national championship will be claimed by a team from the WCHA or CCHA for the first time since 2007, after three straight Hockey East teams took home the crown.
The Fighting Irish advanced to their second Frozen Four behind a near-perfect defensive effort that survived an early UNH onslaught, and then found success with timely goal scoring. Add to that a stellar performance by goaltender Mike Johnson (37 saves), who Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson says he has been trying to convince that he’s one of the best goalies in college hockey, and you’ve got the formula for Notre Dame’s second Frozen Four berth in program history.
“Obviously, we’re thrilled to death,” said Jackson. “For this group to accomplish what they have this year with as many young players is incredible.”
Johnson, the regional’s Most Outstanding Player, was a major difference maker. He stayed calm early and did a terrific job controlling rebounds, not allowing UNH a single quality rebound attempt all night.
“[Johnson's] biggest challenge is that he wants to do well so bad that he ends up thinking it too much,” said Jackson. “I keep reminding him of all the goalie drills we do that it’s more about just getting into the game and stopping the puck. You don’t think, you just play. Tonight, he just played.”
In front of Johnson, the Irish managed the game extremely well. They played a forecheck that worked very well in limiting New Hampshire’s transition, particularly in the neutral zone.
“We changed our forecheck this year and became more aggressive,” said Jackson. “We don’t want to be known as a slow down team. It may look slow, but hopefully you get the pocket transition from it.”
That, in essence, was what triggered both Notre Dame goals.
New Hampshire dominated the game early, posting an 8-1 advantage in shots over the game’s first seven minutes. After a TV timeout allowed Notre Dame to regroup, the Irish turned to their transition game, moving the puck from the defensive zone and over the blue line, where Stephen Johns hammered a slap shot through traffic at 7:26 that beat UNH goaltender Matt DiGirolamo (36 saves), himself caught too deep in his crease.
After what seemed like a chess match in the second period, where both teams played for possession, neither generating grade ‘A’ chances, Notre Dame again moved the puck on the Wildcats, changed from the defensive to offensive zone, and set up a Billy Maday goal with just five seconds remaining in the period.
“[The goal] started from a great forecheck,” said Maday. “I was the high guy and I saw Riley [Sheahan] had the puck and I saw the opportunity to go to the net. He made a great pass, and I was able to put it in.”
“The second goal that they scored at the end of the second period was a tough one,” said UNH coach Dick Umile.
Down two goals in front of a strongly partisan crowd of 5,906, you’d expect the Wildcats to have the ultimate in desperation in the third. That desperation though, translated to frustration when the Irish successfully bottled up the neutral zone.
The glimmer of life for the Wildcats came with 6:23 remaining when Mike Sislo finally solved Johnson and one-timed a centering pass to cut the lead to one.
UNH then headed onto a power play with 4:03 remaining, but again Notre Dame simply frustrated the Wildcats with pressure, keeping them from getting the looks in the zone and clearing loose pucks every opportunity they got.
When the final buzzer sounded, the young Irish team had done what many considered the unthinkable: recovered from a disappointing CCHA tournament, played what amounted to two road games against Merrimack and New Hampshire, and emerged as the Northeast Regional champion.
The Irish (25-13-5) will get the chance to keep their “road” success going in the Frozen Four, where they’ll meet Minnesota-Duluth in the national semifinal, which will be played in front of the Bulldogs home-state crowd.
“We’ve played well on the road all year,” said Maday. “It’s more fun for both teams when there are more people in the arena and there’s a great atmosphere.”
For New Hampshire (22-11-6), Sunday’s loss is but another bitter ending to the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats haven’t reached the Frozen Four since 2003, despite reaching the tournament for 10 straight years, and have now lost in the regional final in each of the last three years.
“You don’t have to tell me about it; it’s a lot of disappointment,” said Umile. “It’s another team that did an awful lot for our program. They’ve done everything they can to get to the Frozen Four. It’s been disappointing.”