Irish luck runs out in Detroit
By TIM LOGAN
When Notre Dame hockey coach Dave Poulin took the reigns of the fledgling program in 1995, he set a goal for his team: Reach the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) semifinals at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena.
Poulin and the Irish realized that goal last week when they won two out of three games against Ferris State in the quarterfinals, the first time since 1982 they have won a playoff series and advanced to "Hockeytown."
But, on St. Patrick's Day, in Detroit, their luck ran out, and the Irish fell 4-0 to the Michigan State Spartans, who then topped University of Nebraska-Omaha 6-0 Saturday to claim the conference title.
After the loss, Poulin remained positive about his team's accomplishment.
"It was a very significant step," he said of reaching the semifinals in the CCHA, one of college hockey's top conferences, for the first time in 18 years.
He particularly thanked the seniors, who joined the program when it was in its infancy, and who led it to this point.
"They saw a vision I had," he said. "Joe Louis Arena was a big part of that vision and becoming one of the top teams in the CCHA."
The Irish faced Michigan State, a long-established conference power, in their semifinal match. Despite donning kelly green jerseys for the first time in its hockey history, Notre Dame came out flat in the first period.
And the No. 9 team in the country capitalized.
The Spartans scored three times in the first 20 minutes of play, and spent the rest of the game stymieing the Irish offense. They added an empty net goal in the final minutes to make it 4-0.
"We were never able to get our offense going early and they fed off that," he said. "They're a very good defensive hockey team and they feed off of you getting frustrated and your lack of offense."
The Irish mustered a mere 20 shots against the CCHA-leading Spartan defense, their lowest total since a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Northern Michigan on Jan. 14.
The green jerseys were a surprise, and the players only learned of them upon arriving in the locker room before the game. But this appeal to St. Patrick was not enough to bring the Irish a victory over the Spartans, who wear green in every game.
"Emotionally, I think it was a lift," Poulin said. "It would've been great if it was a deciding factor, but something like that isn't going to do it. It's a small, small piece."
Notre Dame played Michigan State four times during the regular season, winning once, losing twice and tying once. The Irish clinched home ice in the first round when they tied the Spartans 2-2 on March 3. Friday's game was the most lopsided of the season between the two teams.
To reach "The Joe" Notre Dame first needed to win a best-of-three series with Ferris State March 10-12. The Bulldogs, who beat the Irish twice during the regular season, came into the Joyce Center seeded sixth in the conference, but with a better overall record than Notre Dame.
Game One was a back-and-forth battle that was still in doubt in the final seconds. Junior forward Dan Carlson gave Notre Dame the lead for good with 14 minutes to go when he stole the puck, skated the length of the ice and beat Bulldog goalie Phil Osaer to his left, putting the Irish up 4-3.
The team clung to this lead for the rest of the game, relying on the strong play of defensemen Tyson Fraser, Nathan Borega, Sean Molina and Sean Seyferth and golden-helmeted goalie Tony Zasowski, who made a brilliant save to preserve the lead with 17 seconds remaining.
Ferris State dominated Game Two, earning a 6-1 victory. The Bulldogs went up 2-0 early, and then scored a short-handed goal at the start of the second period to take a 3-1 lead. They never looked back.
It marked the third year in a row that the Irish had won the first and lost the second game in the best-of-three quarterfinals. In both 1998 and 1999, they also dropped the third game.
But not this year.
The Irish jumped out in front early in Game Three, scoring the first two goals, and hung on to win an intense game 4-2, after junior forward Ryan Dolder sealed the victory with an empty net goal — his third of the tournament — with 16 seconds remaining.
Notre Dame's first three goals came from some unlikely contributors — junior forwards Matt Van Arkel and Jay Kopischke and senior defenseman Tyson Fraser. The trio had combined for just 10 goals all season, but they were in the right place at the right time against Ferris State.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Irish, and many fans at the Joyce Center, waited to hear the results of the game between seven-seed Nebraska-Omaha and four-seed Northern Michigan and find out who Notre Dame would play next.
If Northern Michigan won, Notre Dame would face Bowling Green in a play-in game for the fourth seat in the semifinals. Bowling Green, who finished No. 8 in the conference, had eliminated third-seed Lake Superior State the previous night. If Nebraska-Omaha prevailed, they would face Bowling Green in the play-in, and Notre Dame would head straight for Detroit.
About 15 minutes after their game ended, Notre Dame players and fans heard the results of the game in Marquette: Nebraska-Omaha 2, Northern Michigan 1.
The Irish were going to Detroit.
"It's something we've been waiting four years for," Borega said. "I'm kind of numb to it right now."
The last time Notre Dame reached the conference semifinals was 1982, when Poulin was the captain and Michigan State beat them 4-1. Poulin scored the lone goal. The Irish left the CCHA in 1983 and did not rejoin until 1992.
Last season was the first time the team had earned home ice for the first round since rejoining the conference.
They lost to Northern Michigan 2 games to 1 that year. This year was the first time they have won a playoff series.
All Sports Stories for Tuesday, March 21, 2000