Despite an uneven start to the season, we're in mid-February and Notre Dame is very much alive for a top 4 spot in Hockey East, which would earn the Irish a coveted bye to the quarterfinals. Watching the Irish battle to a split with 11th-ranked Providence over the weekend, it was easy to see why.
Friday - ND 2, Providence 0
ND was terrific Friday in earning a 2-0 shutout win over Providence, mainly because of freshman goalie Cal Petersen. I've been trumpeting Petersen's virtues all season, and he made me look smart Friday by outdueling All-American Jon Gillies despite a massive shot disadvantage.
The Irish were outshot at a 2:1 clip, but that didn't stop Petersen, who made 38 saves, continuing a red-hot streak. At the end of Friday's game, Petersen had stopped 81 of the last 82 shots against him.
ND's offense was resilient, though, and particularly on the power play, where the Irish scored their first goal. ND's power play unit was a black hole early in the season, but since Jan. 10, heading into Friday's game, the team was scoring on over a quarter of its opportunities with the extra man. It didn't take long for them to find the net Friday, as Vince Hinostroza set up a goal by Thomas DiPauli just under 12 minutes in. Hinostroza's blistering speed in the neutral zone got the Friars' D off its heels, and a great pass to DiPauli set him up for the goal.
Providence delivered some big hits during the game, at least one of which put the Irish on the power play again, but the Friars backed up their hitting with some great offensive hockey. At one point, PC's offense attacked the net for well over 30 straight seconds, but despite the long shift on defense, the Irish were up to the task. They did catch a break, though, as a bouncing loose puck in front of the net prevented the Friars from getting a shot off at point-blank range.
Hinostroza would later miss 10 minutes of play due to a misconduct penalty, although it wasn't clear what the penalty was for. A replay showed the young defenseman skating by a ref prior to the whistle, but during Saturday's game, NBCSN's commentators informed us that Jeff Jackson said the ref in question said Hinostroza had not cursed, leaving open the question of what he could've done. Anyway, ND also had to go on the penalty kill during this time, but with Petersen's help was able to escape once more.
Hinostroza, on a mission, almost recorded a second assist early in the third period after leaving the penalty box, but Anders Bjork barely missed converting it. Soon after that, Hinostroza raced like a comet toward Gillies, but the Friars' netminder stonewalled him. Gillies had another nice save shortly thereafter against Bjork, preventing the freshman from capitalizing on a great pass from Jordan Gross.
The night belonged to Petersen, though, who came up big on a save he probably doesn't practice much, stopping the puck after the Friars fired a shot at him after the puck bounced off the back boards and directly to the Providence offense. Fittingly, Hinostroza, who was far and away the best non-goalie on the ice Friday, delivered the clinching goal with 1:39 to play on a rebound shot from Bjork.
Petersen earned his third shutout in the game, which NBCSN told us was the most by a ND freshman since David Brown 11 years ago. He's pretty good. And for the moment, the Irish were in fourth place in Hockey East, surpassing Providence.
Saturday - Providence 3, ND 2
However, Providence's offense couldn't be held down forever. The Friars are a good team, and they proved it Saturday, again getting more shots, but this time taking advantage of them in a 3-2 win.
Providence started off a bit sloppy, though, turning the puck over and committing a silly hooking penalty. The visitors were able to get by without surrendering a goal, though, thanks to some good play from Gillies. ND narrowly missed getting on the board at the end of the period, as a slick offensive possession ended with a shot just wide.
Then the floodgates opened. The second period featured all five goals that were scored in the game, the first three within four minutes' time. PC had two of them, the first coming on what could be argued was a lucky shot. Kevin Rooney fired the puck from way out by the blue line, but it Magic Bullet-ed its way through traffic and found the back of the net. Robbie Russo briefly answered with a wicked snipe for a power play goal 2:16 later, but the Friars would go back on top when Tom Parisi and Ross Mauermann teamed up for a slick rebound goal. Parisi fielded a rebound and whipped it cross-ice to Mauermann, who was right in front of the goal, and Petersen couldn't get to it.
PC extended its lead to 3-1 when a Steven McParland shot rebounded to Rooney for an easy goal. The play was set up by an ND turnover in the neutral zone. Petersen and the ND defense did stand up for an aggressive penalty kill late in the period, but the damage was done. Sam Herr got the Irish back in it with a great move to the net with just two seconds to play - with some luck, as his shot was deflected by a Friar stick through Gillies' five hole - but ND wouldn't score again. The Irish committed three penalties in the third period, all but nuking its chances of coming back.
ND is right in the middle of a heated race for a top 4 spot in Hockey East. BU has a four-point cushion at the top of the league, but only five points separate second-place Boston College from seventh-place Vermont, so just about everything is up for the taking. (ND is tied for fifth with Northeastern, 2 points behind UMass-Lowell and 1 behind Providence.) ND looked the part of a team that belonged in that discussion, with some help from Herculean efforts by Petersen and Hinostroza Friday night, but the Irish will have to get more consistent offense scraped together if they're going to make a run in the late stages. This is not least because ND's final two regular-season series are against (gulp) BU and BC, the former on the road.
The end of the season should be fun. Hopefully it lasts long enough so that I'm here several more times before it's all said and done. Go Irish.