Semifinal Preview: Searching For No. 1
Notre Dame, Duluth Seek First National Championship
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
ST. PAUL, Minn. Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson and his four seniors understand Thursday's national semifinal is going to be their most difficult task of the season. Playing against a team, such as Minnesota-Duluth, means a test. It means goals will be at a premium, and defense must be perfect.
However, for the Irish, it also means a chance to shift focus internally. Away from the distraction of the week in St. Paul and the questions about the national championship game loss of 2008. Led by their four seniors, the Irish's best chance to advance to Saturday's title bout is to worry only about their strengths. Play a reliable defensive game and exploit the Bulldogs' aggressive offense whenever possible. Any missed chance or mistake can cost a team a chance at a national championship.
"That's the nature of NCAA Tournaments," Jackson said. "When you get in to one-game situations, it is just a matter of which team goes out and plays 60 solid minutes with great discipline, as far as not taking penalties, and does a great job of creating scoring chances, and denying scoring chances. One shift can be the difference in a game."
That scorching Duluth offense, led by senior Justin Fontaine and junior wingers Mike and Jack Connolly, though, is hardly one team's can count on seeing mistakes from. The Bulldogs demonstrated in their East Regional victories that they can score quickly and in any number of ways.
For most of the season, while the top line stole the headlines, the Duluth defensemen and goaltender Kenny Reiter quietly pieced together one of the most sound, effective units in the country.
Coming off winning the East Regional MVP award for his performances against Union and Yale, Reiter is positioned to play his best games of the season at the most opportune time.
"It starts with him," UMD senior Mike Montgomery said. "When he's confident, it brings confidence to the rest of the defense corps. We feel we can play more aggressive and know that Kenny has our back. It's huge. He's really stepped us his game. He's been solid all season, but he's really been something else this postseason."
"I think we would've liked to played this thing last weekend just to keep the momentum going," Reiter said. "I'm playing with confidence right now. I have confidence in my teammates."
Led by gifted freshman Justin Faulk, who leads UMD defensemen with a plus-18 rating, the UMD blue line held opponents to 2.6 goals-per game. Paired with Faulk, Montgomery provides the steady presence, tempering the aggression of Faulk. Since UMD coach Scott Sandelin paired the group, they've served as the club's top defensive unit and one of the nation's best.
"He's a great player — solid in all positions," Montgomery said of Faulk. "Any situation, and he performs. I'm honored to be his teammate and his defense partner for the last half of the year."
"As a coaching staff, we look for some freshmen to come in and make an impact," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said of Faulk. "I have not seen a freshman come in and do some of the things he did. In our league, it's not an easy position with some of the players you play against night in and night out. I thought he had a great first half and World Junior, and he's continued that in the second half. He's made a huge impact."
Within the offensive system, a premium falls on the team's ability to quickly transition defense into scoring chances. At times, especially against Notre Dame, risky puck movement can lead to easy goals. With Montgomery shadowing Faulk to the right, the Bulldogs offset a majority of potential danger.
"In some ways, [Notre Dame] is similar to our team," Sandelin said. "They play aggressively. They forecheck aggressively. So it's going to be critical to get pucks out of the zone and try to challenge them defensively."
Notre Dame freshman center T.J. Tynan is one of those Irish players the Bulldog defense must account for when considering that first outlet pass.
Tynan, along with Anders Lee, has led a talented Irish freshman class that propelled the club back to the Frozen Four.
Relying on youth has proven to be a positive for the ND. Still, the lack of familiarity with Duluth, forced Jackson and his upperclassmen to direct his team's focus to its own game. For Tynan — 22 goals and 31 assists — and Lee — 24 goals and 20 assists — this means two very different things. Lee plays the role of the aggressive power forward, while Tynan patiently creates offense for his teammates with smooth passing.
Both ranked among the national scoring leaders for freshman and paced the Irish offense. In Manchester, N.H., two weeks ago, Tynan remained fairly quiet. Lee, however, scored twice in ND's comeback win over Merrimack. His second goal, the game-winner in overtime, demonstrated another element of the Irish offense — relentless forechecking. As Merrimack center Carter Madsen circled his net to lead a breakout, Lee followed, swiping at Madsen's stick. The puck kicked from Madesen's stick, then found a hole between Joe Cannata's pads. While some dismissed the goal as fluky, it stood out to most in the Notre Dame locker room as a shining example of the club's commitment to the game's less-glamorous elements.
Against Duluth, though, that forecheck could be problematic — especially when Faulk and Montgomery on the ice. At this point, Jackson will gladly take this risk, as it's a better alternative to forcing his young team to adjust too heavily.