Penalties Doom Notre Dame in Frozen Four Loss
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
ST. PAUL, Minn. Prior to Thursday's first national semifinal, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson discussed a few points he believed would dictate the outcome.
A veteran of the 16-team tournament and its final two rounds, Jackson understands these things fairly well. Naturally, Jackson pointed to both discipline and special teams. The ability to keep five skaters on the ice and neutralize the threat when one finds his way into the penalty box.
"It's exactly what we saw on film," Jackson said. "They have an exceptional power play, and we couldn't generate any offense on the power play. So I thought we played a good game five-on-five. Other than that, that game was completely determined by special teams."
Based solely on the final penalty kill of the evening for Notre Dame, it appeared that the Irish were fairly successful. At 2 minutes, 5 seconds of the third period, senior winger Calle Ridderwall dangled into the high slot and quickly cocked and fired a shot past Minnesota-Duluth goaltender Kenny Reiter. The goal, Ridderwall's 16th of the season, cut the Bulldogs lead to 4-3 with most of the third period left to play.
Jackson's club peppered Reiter heavily throughout the period, outshooting UMD, 15-2. Still, the goaltender calmly paddled the attempts aside, leading his team to Saturday's national championship game.
As the Irish's chance to tie fell away, and the Bulldogs celebrated their win, Jackson's words before the tournament echoed loudly. Throughout the game, the Bulldog breakout, predicated on brisk movement and seamless passing, forced Notre Dame forecheckers to make instant decisions.
The correct one resulted in halted rushes. The incorrect option created acres of open ice for the Bulldog forwards — especially dangerous given the Bulldogs' best forwards need only an inch to take their mile. When they met that open ice, the Irish frequently relied on their sticks to make up for blown coverage. It didn't take long for the referees to notice, either.
UMD, led by their prolific top line of Mike and Jack Connolly and Justin Fontaine, converted on three of six power plays — the first of which coming at 3:04 of the first period, quickly wiping out the 1-0 lead Notre Dame established 49 seconds into the game.
Freshman David Gerths was the guilty party in that instance. However, he was not the only Irish player responsible for sending the explosive Bulldog man advantage to work more than once. Nor was Gerths' infraction the only one that resulted in goals for the Irish.
Sophomore center Riley Sheahan, a player Jackson often praises for his responsibility, picked up three minors in the game. His first, an interference minor, served as a prelude to the Bulldogs’ second power-play goal. In typical UMD fashion, quick puck movement and an exhausted ND penalty kill allowed Jack Connolly to slide undetected into the right face-off circle. A perfect cross-ice pass from J.T. Brown quickly turned into Connolly's 18th goal of the season.
"I thought we took some bad penalties," Jackson said. "I thought we took some uncharacteristic penalties. I don’t think Riley Sheahan has had six minutes in penalties all year. I don't know what happened tonight, but we took some bad penalties.
Among the Irish players and coaches, there was no uniform cause for their carelessness. Ridderwall questioned some of the calls, but the more experienced Jackson saw something else – differences between the officials his club plays with on a regular basis, and the crew they saw Thursday night.
"I thought a lot of calls were questionable, especially in the first period," Ridderwall said.
"Obviously, we took some penalties, so we're clear on that. But I thought there was one late in the first period and a lot of penalties that were questionable and a lot of calls we didn't get to be honest. Their speed forced it a couple times for sure."
Either way, the Irish played their final game of the season Thursday night. The loss, which ended a run some deemed impossible when this tournament began, demonstrated an element of the team many thought no longer impacted its play – youth.
All seven of the Notre Dame penalties came after infractions by underclassmen. Players incapable of reacting to the Bulldogs' extended possession and rapid movement with anything but frustration. Sticks shot into midsections, arms wrapped around players a little too snugly — and the Irish saw the consequences.
As they did all season, the Irish will learn from the lessons handed to them by the Bulldogs.
Stay out of the penalty box. If they had, they may be playing one more game this season.