BOSTON — It may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing game, but for red-hot No. 14 Notre Dame, it was efficient and effective.
The Irish solidified their NCAA tournament credentials and extended their unbeaten run to eight games, dealing No. 2 Boston College a humbling 7-2 defeat at Conte Forum to open up the rivals’ Hockey East quarterfinal series.
It’s the second time in as many tries that the Irish have upended the Eagles after winning in overtime two weeks ago. Tonight, they handed BC its first loss in a Hockey East quarterfinal game since 2004, snapping a run of 18 straight wins.
The game had more of a pedestrian than playoff feel to it, as the Irish played a neutral-zone trap throughout, suffocating the Boston College transition game and effectively neutralizing the Eagles’ potent top scoring line.
Combined with an opportunistic counter-attack throughout the game, Notre Dame took control of the pace from the start.
“People like to think we’re a defensive team, but when you defend with a purpose, it creates offense,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. “It’s about puck possession, it’s about making plays on transition. You can’t have transition without defense. If you look at all the great basketball programs, they all defend and they transition well. It’s what makes Duke such a great basketball program. [That's] how we try to build our program.”
In all, the Eagles offense, averaging roughly 32 shots per game entering the day, was limited to a meager 23. Adding to the trouble was a solid day for Irish goalie Steven Summerhays (22 saves), who stood his ground on several point-blank shots and stuff-in tries.
Eagles coach Jerry York, normally analytical in his postgame remarks, was terse in his assessment.
“We just got beat soundly by a better team tonight,” York said. “[Their] style of play was not a factor for us. They were just a better team tonight.”
After a mundane first period dotted with mostly harmless scoring chances, the two teams traded goals in the final three minutes of the frame.
The first came on the power play for the Eagles, after Johnny Gaudreau got slashed by Jeff Costello on a rush through the neutral zone. Having just been on the ice, the Eagles’ top line was given a rest in favor of the second power-play unit, containing four freshmen. Not that it mattered.
At 17:37, Adam Gilmour slipped the puck to Ryan Fitzgerald in the low slot, who fired off Summerhays’ right shoulder, spilling a rebound in front. With a no room to clear the puck, Fitzgerald was able to follow it up to bang in his 10th goal of the season.
But roughly two minutes later, the Irish responded.
With a four-on-for situation and the period in its final 10 seconds, Thomas DiPauli sent a back-door feed across to Stephen Johns pinching on a rush, who took advantage of the open ice to direct the puck past Thatcher Demko (27 saves) short-side.
After an uncharacteristic roughing penalty by Quinn Smith, Johns took advantage with a wrist shot, notching his second goal of the game walking in from the high slot.
Beyond his own offensive contributions, Johns credited the team’s mindset going into the weekend, which provided the framework to contain the Eagles’ offense.
“If you don’t keep the game simple, they bury you,” Johns said. “A lot of it [is attributed] to the maturity of our team. We have a lot of seniors on our squad who have been in a spot like this.”
Opportunistic goals became a recurring theme.
After a spate of time in the defensive zone including a frantic penalty kill, the Irish quickly tacked on another at 12:49 into the second period, as Vince Hinostroza strolled behind the BC net and fired to a wide open Mario Lucia in the left circle, who fired the one-timer past Demko to make it 3-1 Irish.
Then the floodgates opened.
A four-goal third period with easy tallies for Peter Schneider, Bryan Rust and DiPauli ultimately chased Demko and gave the Irish a convincing 7-1 lead en route to a 7-2 final.
“As soon as we scored even the fourth or fifth goal, we said, ‘Next goal is ours,’ and we kept the pedal down,” Johns remarked. “We have a lot of confidence now and we know that if we all play together with the same jam, we can beat anyone in the country.”
Of note, Gaudreau extended his point streak to 30 games, picking up an assist on a Patrick Brown goal to bookend the game.
The Eagles will need more – much more – of that tomorrow to even up the series. And for the first time since November, BC has some palpable adversity to overcome.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us and we understand that,” York said. “The only objective now is to get the series to Sunday.”