Notre Dame entered this weekend's series with top-ranked Minnesota presented with an opportunity. The Irish had looked good in a sweep of Niagara and a near-sweep of conference foe Vermont the previous two weekends - now came a chance to assert themselves as a contender by playing well against the Gophers.
It's safe to say that did not happen, as Minnesota clobbered the Irish 5-0 Friday night and won the second game 4-2 on Sunday. Poor starts were an issue in both games, with the losses knocking ND (now 5-4-1) out of the top 20 rankings.
Friday: Minnesota 5, ND 0
ND never gave itself a chance to take a lead in Friday's game, surrendering a power-play goal barely two minutes in when Justin Kloos took a great feed from Kyle Rau and sent it past ND netminder Cal Petersen. The Irish actually got a couple of good chances later in the period, a 2-on-1 and later a 2-on-0 with Anders Bjork and Vince Hinostroza rushing the net, but Adam Wilcox showed both times why he's a Hobey Baker contender by turning aside shots. Aside from a few brief moments, though, this first period was all Minnesota, as they fired 18 shots on goal, the most they'd had in a period all season. The Irish could only muster six.
It was more of the same in the second period, with the Gophers peppering Petersen with 14 shots. A Minnesota goal was waved off when Vinni Lettieri was ruled to have interfered with Petersen, but once again ND found it nearly impossible to penetrate Minnesota's defense. Gophers' freshman Leon Bristedt would later get one on the board when Hudson Fasching sent him a terrific two-line pass between a pair of Irish defenders and Bristedt beat Petersen. The Gophers poured in three goals in the third period, but since ND could no nothing offensively, they were largely cosmetic goals.
Petersen actually played a great game in this one, saving 39 shots. His defense has to do a better job protecting him against potent squads like Minnesota. I'm not inclined to be too hard on ND's offense despite their lack of success Friday - Minnesota played an outstanding defensive game and Wilcox is a terrific goaltender. I'm no scout, but I'd wager he could contribute to an NHL team in some capacity right now if necessary.
Sunday: Minnesota 4, ND 2
This game started off looking even worse than Friday's did, as Minnesota's Sam Warning scored 29 seconds into the game. The Irish's Thomas DiPauli made a nice series of moves to get into position for a good shot a few moments later, but again Wilcox stoned him. After Tony Bretzman was penalized for tripping with 13:43 left in the opening stanza, it took the Gophers all of seven seconds to score on a nice series of passes: Mike Reilly to Taylor Cammarata to Fasching. Barry Melrose, broadcasting for ESPNU, said Fasching would never have an easier goal, and it was hard to argue. ND simply was outclassed in the first period. The Irish gave up a third goal when a Mike Reilly shot deflected off an Irish stick and past Petersen.
Coach Jeff Jackson gave Petersen the hook after the period in favor of Chad Katunar, probably more to try and give the Irish a spark than because Petersen had done anything particularly badly. It seemed to work, as the Irish offense, for the first time all weekend, started attacking well. ND hit two posts on a single power play, a bummer given the final margin of the game. Robbie Russo was the guy to finally give the Irish a goal, with 7:36 to go, on a power play. Naturally, the Gophers scored barely a minute later when Michael Brodzinski just threw the puck at the net and it found its way between everyone and past Katunar.
The Irish, to their credit, kept coming. DiPauli hit the crossbar with a shot, and shortly thereafter Austin Wuthrich fired a great one-timer from Russo into the goal. Though Wuthrich was off balance, the shot was true and the Irish were back within two goals. ND almost got a cheapie when a puck that was simply flung from the defensive zone in the closing seconds of the period escaped the sight of Wilcox and skittered just wide of the net.
The third period was more of the same as ND attacked pretty well, but couldn't get any more results. Minnesota did well to maintain the lead, with the help of two power plays that cost the Irish four minutes of valuable attacking time. The game ended 4-2.
It was a rough weekend for the Irish, but there were reasons for optimism. They battled back in the second game and made things interesting, and Petersen played a great first game despite the five goals scored. With the youth of this team, it's not entirely surprising they struggled the way they did in their first road games of the season. Hopefully, with Hockey East play getting going in earnest next weekend with a trip to Merrimack, the Irish will use these defeats to get better.