SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The indicators from the season opener were overwhelmingly positive for Rensselaer.
Goaltender Jason Kasdorf played his first meaningful game in nearly a year Friday night, making 31 saves in a 3-2 victory over No. 12 Notre Dame.
A pair of rookie defensemen did well in their college hockey debuts, and the Engineers defense as a whole played a smart, disciplined game.
And junior center Mark Miller put a mark in the goal column at an important time after scoring just three times last season.
The Engineers beat the Fighting Irish in the semifinals of the Ice Breaker Tournament at Compton Family Ice Arena, with Miller’s third-period goal breaking a tie.
“It’s always a little bit tough at the start of the year getting back in the swing of things, but the fact that we were able to get a big win tonight I think really helps with our confidence,” Kasdorf said.
It was Kasdorf who backstopped the effort that put RPI into Sunday’s championship game against Minnesota, which follows a day off because of a Notre Dame home football game on Saturday.
He stopped 14 of the 15 shots he faced in the third period.
“What we saw is what we always see from Jason,” RPI coach Seth Appert said. “He gives us a real calming presence.”
Kasdorf played just under half of the Engineers’ exhibition game last Saturday; before that, he last took the ice on Oct. 13, 2013. Shoulder surgery ended his 2013-14 season after just two games.
“I felt really good,” Kasdorf said after his 16th win in 26 collegiate games. “I think the team played really well in front of me, too, so that made it easier.”
Goalies had a good share of the spotlight coming in, with Kasdorf’s return from injury serving as one subplot and Notre Dame’s Chad Katunar taking over for the graduated Steven Summerhays acting as another.
Katunar made 26 saves, but the Fighting Irish couldn’t gain any momentum from a third-period equalizing goal before Rensselaer had regained the lead.
“This is going to be a work in progress, I’ve said that all along,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. “I think that we’ve got the potential to be a really good team, but it’s about gaining experience.”
There was experience gained by a Rensselaer defensive unit that included freshmen Mike Prapavessis and Jared Wilson.
They played in their first collegiate game, while junior Craig Bokenfohr appeared in just his 22nd game for the Engineers.
The Rensselaer defense made the smart plays to limit Notre Dame’s scoring chances.
“I thought our guys did a great job with it,” Appert said. “Notre Dame’s a very good hockey team, and right now they’re playing very aggressive. … The reality is when a team plays like that, the right play is the simple play.”
After Viktor Liljegren and Jacob Laliberte scored in the second period to give Rensselaer a 2-1 lead, Notre Dame freshman Jordan Gross converted his own rebound 3:41 into the third period to tie things.
It took just 51 seconds for the Engineers to respond, with Miller finishing off a feed from Zach Schroeder.
“Mark Miller on paper is our fourth-line center, [but] I thought he was our best forward tonight,” Appert said. “Sometimes you don’t get rewarded for playing that way. I thought tonight that game-winning goal was [by] the perfect person.”
The Irish had chances down the stretch, including a Mario Lucia shot in the final minute that Kasdorf fought off.
The Engineers also went 5-for-5 on the penalty kill, allowing only two shots on goal.
“We kept the puck to the outside, let Jason make the first save and we’ll clear rebounds,” RPI defenseman and captain Curtis Leonard said. “When you do that it’s going to be an easy night.”