DULUTH, Minn. — Minnesota-Duluth not only raised an NCAA championship banner Friday night, but took part in the marquee matchup in Division I to start the 2011-12 men’s hockey season at Amsoil Arena.
The eighth ranked Bulldogs faced No. 1 Notre Dame in a rematch of the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four semifinals and won, again, by the same 4-3 score much to the delight of a near-sellout crowd of 6,297.
Senior winger Travis Oleksuk got the game-winner with 4:24 to play as UMD outshot Notre Dame 31-17.
The pregame ceremony was brief. The banner, placed in the rafters next to the American flag, was uncovered after player introductions reading: NCAA National Champions 2011 Men’s Hockey, with a Bulldog logo.
“Raising that banner was an amazing finish to a season that had never happened here before,” said Oleksuk, from Thunder Bay, Ontario, whose dad, Bill, was a UMD star forward 30 years ago. “It signified that last season was completely done and then we said ‘Let’s get to it. Let’s get a good start to this season.’ ”
The nonconference foes put on an amazingly good show for the first week of October as temperatures in Duluth reached an unseasonable 80-plus degrees.
Notre Dame of South Bend, Ind., picked to win the 2012 Central Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season title, earned its only lead at 1-0 just 7:32 into the game. Senior center Billy Maday sniped a shot from the left circle past UMD goalie Kenny Reiter.
UMD answered 98 second later and scored twice in 2:05 for a 2-1 lead on Notre Dame turnovers. Winger Mike Seidel finished a 2-on-0 rush at the Irish crease on a power play at 9:10. Duluthian Keegan Flaherty, another junior winger, followed from the left boards in the offensive zone, connecting from the slot at 11:15 for his first collegiate goal.
“We showed a lot of character and that was exciting,” said Seidel. “We only had two guys in the lineup completely new to the team, so we have players who know what it took to win last season. Even though we lost some very good players, we know we’re still a competitive team.”
Anders Lee of Edina, Minn., part of Notre Dame’s stable of talented sophomore forwards, got it to 2-2 with 7:14 left in the first period. But the Fighting Irish could never regain the lead.
The teams exchanged goals in the second for a 3-3 score. UMD sophomore J.T. Brown cracked a shot from the top of the left circle that clanked in off the crossbar past goalie Mike Johnson. That came on a power play at 5:35. Notre Dame got its own man advantage goal with 5:43 left from winger Mike Voran in the slot.
“Duluth’s a great team and we were a bit sloppy,” said Lee. “Our heads were spinning a bit.”
The teams went back and forth in the final period before Notre Dame called a timeout with 5:31 remaining. The winning play developed a minute later as Oleksuk carried in on the right side, cut across the slot to the left circle and found a lane opening. The player with UMD’s most game-winning goals last season (7) had his first of a new season and 25th of his career.
Johnson was pulled for an extra attacker with 53 seconds to play and the Bulldogs held on. Jack Connolly added two assists for UMD.
“We did well playing with a lead, our intensity level was good and we got stronger, and maybe that comes from confidence,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “We did a good job defensively and that’s what we need this season,”
It was exactly six months earlier, on April 7, that UMD also rallied from a 1-0 deficit to defeat Notre Dame in the NCAA semifinals at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center. Friday’s win give the Bulldogs five straight victories.
This week, the Fighting Irish were busy off the ice, announcing a commitment to Hockey East for 2013-14 after much speculation they would be part of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which includes UMD. Notre Dame is also getting ready to open a new $52 million on-campus rink Oct. 21. Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, however, says his team wasn’t distracted in its preparations.
“This is just the very beginning of a new season,” said Jackson, who raised banners in 1992 and 1994 as Lake Superior State won NCAA titles with him behind the bench. “Both teams played hard and we just turned the puck over a little too much, and we need to get pucks to the net more often. Losing always means an F grade, but for our effort it was a B.”