Jack Connolly goal helps Minnesota-Duluth edge Notre Dame

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Minnesota-Duluth’s quest to make history and win the school’s first-ever national championship lived on Thursday, as the Bulldogs used near-perfect special teams and a remarkable effort in net from goaltender Kenny Reiter to edge Notre Dame, 4-3, in the opening game of the 2011 Frozen Four.

Minnesota-Duluth will face Michigan in Saturday’s championship game. The Bulldogs are in search of their first NCAA title, and return to the championship for the first time since 1984.

For the third straight game, the Bulldogs were sparked by stellar special teams. After scoring five goals with the man advantage in the East Regional, UMD added three additional power-play tallies on Thursday. At the same time, the Bulldogs penalty kill was perfect, stopping all five Irish power plays, limiting Notre Dame to just two shots on goal with the man advantage.

“Obviously, the difference in the game was special teams,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, whose team finishes the season at 25-14-5. “It’s exactly what we saw on film. I thought we played a good game five-on-five, but that game was dictated by special teams.”

The only special-teams blemish for the Bulldogs was a short-handed goal that Calle Ridderwall scored at 2:05 of the third period. At the time, the goal completely shifted momentum, narrowing UMD’s lead to 4-3. From there, the Irish owned the final frame, outshooting UMD, 15-2. Reiter though, was at his best down the stretch, and finished with 31 saves, his third-straight 30-plus save game of the NCAA tournament.

“Sometimes in the year, your goalie needs to win games for you,” said Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin. “[Reiter’s] been outstanding for us, and we went with him because we know he’s capable of playing that way.”

The game began with a wild opening period and it took just 49 seconds Notre Dame to strike, as Jeff Costello fired a wrist shot through a screen that beat Reiter five-hole.

The Bulldogs though, answered quickly, scoring on their first shot at 3:04. On the power play, J.T. Brown turned and fired a shot that deflected off Stephen Johns’ stick and past Notre Dame goaltender Mike Johnson (17 saves) to knot the game at one.

The Irish regained the lead at 9:46 on a T.J. Tynan goal. Ryan Guentzel fired a puck wide on a rush and Tynan burst from the wing to push home the rebound from a tight angle for the 2-1 lead.

Once again, UMD had a quick answer, as Kyle Schmidt notched his 10th goal of the season just 66 seconds later, roofing a shot after skating around a Notre Dame defender.

“I don’t want to be spotting teams one-goal leads, I’ll tell you that,” said Sandelin. “But we did respond on both occasions.”

The Irish didn’t have their own answer after that goal, and penalties spelled doom as Minnesota-Duluth scored on a Mike Connolly power-play goal at 13:31 of the first and added a Jack Connolly goal with the man advantage at 5:51 of the second to open up a 4-2 lead heading to the third.

Ridderwall’s goal early in the third certainly gave the Irish the life they needed. After the goal was scored, Minnesota-Duluth never had a shot on goal for the remainder of the game. In fact, the Bulldogs attempted just six shots in the third period, compared to 24 for the Irish. That though, didn’t matter, as Reiter was at his best with the game on the line, leading the Bulldogs back to the national title game for the first time in 27 years.

“They outchanced us and outshot us [in the third],” said Bulldogs defenseman Justin Faulk, who assisted on three of Minnesota-Duluth’s four goals. “But that just showed our team’s composure. We got the puck out when we needed to, and guys were always down blocking shots.”

Should the Bulldogs (25-10-6) be victorious on Saturday, they’ll become the 18th program to capture a Division I ice hockey national title, but the first team since Maine in 1993 to earn its first championship.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Minnesota-Duluth’s Jack Connolly. “We’re looking to make history in our program. We’ve worked hard all year and this was our ultimate goal, to get to this game on Saturday.”