March 21, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Can't Catch Up

Notre Dame's Comeback Effort Fails in Semis

by Michael King/CHN Reporter

BOSTON — Through its first season in Hockey East, Notre Dame regularly put themselves in a position of disadvantage — both on the ice and in the context of the season. The team excelled through a challenging non-conference schedule, facing — and beating — some of the best teams from the best leagues.

However, conference play created a different reality. The Fighting Irish struggled early in the season against HEA competition, including a pair of losses to Massachusetts-Lowell in November. The team spent most of the year near last place before recovering to close the regular season with a six-game unbeaten streak. This turnaround, albeit only good enough to earn a share of seventh place, secured home-ice in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs.

The Irish, with a style of hockey grounded in discipline and strong decision making, also appeared comfortable playing from behind. The team largely reasoned that its puck-possession game could sustain them in any circumstance. Similarly, players believed that their mental toughness could yield a successful season, regardless of the standings at any point in time.

This theme continued through the Hockey East tournament. In all three games against Boston College in the quarterfinals, ND fell behind in the first period. However, the dominance of the team’s neutral-zone play was enough to overcome any early defensive breakdowns against the Hockey East regular-season champions in two of the series’ three games. The comebacks propelled the Fighting Irish to the semifinals and an opportunity to defeat last-year’s champion, UMass-Lowell.

Against the River Hawks, the deficit trend remained. UML’s first goal was the benefit of a fortunate bounce, as a shot from defenseman Christian Folin found the back of the net via the skate of a ND player. The team was in a similar position as it was against Boston College: down 2-0 at the end of the first.

However, the next River Hawk goals were well earned. They came either as the result of Fighting Irish turnovers or poor goaltending by Steven Summerhays.

Before the Irish could summon the effort for another comeback, they fell further behind. Again. And again.

“It really came down to puck decisions,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. “A few of their goals went off of our guys. That happened earlier in the year, but that hasn’t happened in the past several weeks. But that’s what happens when they get traffic in front of the net.”

After each UML goal, some at the TD Garden expected ND to finally take control of the game as its season pattern suggested. But, the deficit became too large, against a team with too much talent. The River Hawks won, 4-0, behind a pairs of goals in the first and second periods.

ND created scoring chances through its 35 shots, but none were of the quality to solve UML goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.

Although Notre Dame won’t play for a Hockey East title on Saturday night, its season will continue. Built on the foundation of an impressive collection of non-conference victories, the Fighting Irish are firmly in the NCAA tournament. It will mark another opportunity for the team to prove it can recover from a setback and humbling loss.

Jackson theorized that the team’s travel burden to Boston the last three weekends had contributed to the sluggish start and ultimate poor play against the River Hawks.

“Maybe the travel caught up to us — especially last weekend because it was a pretty emotional series,” Jackson said.

But the Irish should have adequate time to recover before the NCAA regionals get underway. The NCAAs, though, present a new challenge. Although no longer forced to face quality Hockey East teams on a nightly basis, the Irish will compete against the rest of college hockey’s elite.

For Jackson, however, losing in the HEA semifinals represents arguably the year’s largest setback. Continuation of the season is an obvious positive, but the coach emphasized the importance of conference tournaments outside the context of the NCAAs after Friday’s loss.

“I’m a big believer that the conference championships have a lot of meaning,” Jackson said. “It’s not easy getting here and you have to take advantage when you do. Conference championships used to mean everything. It should mean everything here, getting to the Boston Garden. You play a tough, grinding conference schedule. You have to enjoy the experience and take advantage of it.”

“The NCAAs are a separate entity; it’s something after the fact,” he added.

Yet, it’s fitting the Irish have the chance to prove that a devastating loss does not mean the end of the season. A trip to the Frozen Four would validate the team’s character and demonstrate again that the Fighting Irish don’t need to be on top to find success.

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