Irish split two games with fifth-ranked Spartans
By MATT OLIVA
Notre Dame's weekend series against Michigan State marked a crucial point in the Irish schedule. Two games against the league leader would determine whether the Irish would climb up in the CCHA standings or fall further. It was a home-and-home series between a Spartan team that was 11-4-0 (10-2-0 CCHA), ranked fifth in the country, but losers in three of their last four games, and a Notre Dame team that improved its record to 5-7-2 (3-5-2 CCHA) after a slow start, but had not defeated Michigan State at home in their last 10 meetings.
The Irish came out of the weekend with two points, winning the first game at home on Saturday night, before traveling to East Lansing for Sunday night's game. The Irish dropped the second game to the Spartans 4-1. The win on Saturday was the team's second strong showing versus a nationally-ranked opponent in the last eight days, after a hard-fought battle in a 2-1 loss at current No. 4 New Hampshire on Nov. 27.
Saturday night the Irish defeated Michigan State 1-0, on a third-period goal by junior right wing Ryan Dolder. The goal came at the 14 minutes, 56 seconds into the period, when Notre Dame defenseman Ryan Clark's fired a shot that was deflected toward the front of the net. Dolder then beat Spartan goaltender Ryan Miller for his third goal of the season, giving the Irish the lead with five minutes left in the game. Brett Henning and Clark were credited with the assist on the game-winner.
Michigan State made it close in the last five minutes by keeping the pressure on the Irish, but the defense held strong, as it had all night, allowing few scoring opportunities. The closest that the visitors came to scoring came after Irish defenseman Evan Nielsen was sent to the penalty box for interference. Michigan State pulled its goalie to give them a 6-on-4 advantage. With only 20 seconds left in the game, left wing Brian Maloney fired a shot off the cross bar and the defense was able to hold off the Spartans.
Irish goalie Tony Zasowski made the key saves when the Irish needed them, stopping 15 shots in the final period. He had 24 saves for the entire game, getting his second shutout of the season and Notre Dame's first against Michigan State since February 24, 1978. The win also marked the first time that the Irish defeated the Spartans at home since 1982.
“It was an enormous win,” said Irish head coach Dave Poulin. “That was the best all-around game we've played this year.”
The first period proved to be a defensive battle, as both teams had only one shot on goal for the first 10 minutes. Despite the few shots, Michigan State spent most of the first period in the Notre Dame zone. The Irish defense was able to keep the Spartans away from the net, blocking and deflecting most of their attempts on goal. Michigan State did beat Zasowski on one shot, when John-Michael Liles scored with 1:26 left in the period, but the goal was waived off because MSU center Shawn Horcoff was in the crease.
“We wanted to keep their offense on the perimeter as much as possible,” said Poulin. “It was important to keep their defenders out of the offense. Borega and Clark were very good on defense, our whole defense was really good.”
In the second period the Irish came out more aggressive on offense and outshot the Spartans in the period 11-3. Connor Dunlop and David Inman each had good scoring opportunities, but neither team was able to find the net.
“They'll give you a certain amount of space on offense, and we took the space they gave us,” said Poulin. “It's tough to penetrate their defense.”
The play of the Notre Dame defense and Zasowski gave the Irish a much needed two points in the CCHA. “What was most encouraging were all the different facets of the game we played well. Dolder played solid for us all night, and was huge going to the net for the goal. Zasowski was huge the last couple of minutes, especially on the penalty kill. We need to enjoy this for a bit and experience the feeling of knowing what went in to that game. We want that feeling every night, some nights you'll get beat, but we need to enjoy it and learn from what it feels like.”
On Sunday, Michigan State scored in every period on their way to a 4-1 victory. The offensive outburst and the strong goaltending of Joe Blackburn continued Notre Dame's season-long drop-offs in the second games of CCHA series, with a 3-2-1 mark in the opening games and just a 1-4-1 record in the second games. A win on Sunday at Munn Ice Arena would have given the Irish a chance to move into seventh place in the CCHA.
The Spartans scored twice within a 23 second span in the first period and never looked back, adding a goal in each of the next two periods. Blackburn's 24 saves in the game now give him 95 saves in his career against Notre Dame.
The Irish, who failed to convert on all eight of their power-play chances, quickly responded to MSU's third goal of the night, on a frantic triple-rebound sequence at the 11:55 mark of the second period. Senior center Ben Simon started the series with a shot from the left circle that Blackburn knocked into the crowded slot area. Senior right wing Joe Dusbabek sent the puck back on the net, but Blackburn skated out for the save.
Dusbabek then sent the second rebound through the legs of the charging Blackburn but defenseman Brad Hodgins was guarding the goal line and nudged the puck back into the slot. Irish junior left wing Jay Kopischke was crashing the net and smacked the puck past Hodgins for his third career goal and first since scoring in a 7-2 loss to Michigan on Jan. 30, 1998.
The Irish continue play this weekend with a two game series against UMass-Amherst. Notre Dame hosts the two games Friday and Saturday at 7:05 p.m. at the Joyce Center.
All Sports Stories for Monday, December 6, 1999