TOLEDO — Notre Dame limped into the offseason Saturday with a 5-1 loss to St. Cloud State in the opening game of the NCAA Toledo Regional.
Jeff Jackson and his Irish fell short in the NCAA Tournament for the third time as a No. 1 seed.
All the momentum the top-seeded Irish built up in March, winning five straight to claim the CCHA’s final conference title, got left behind in South Bend. St. Cloud State scored three goals in a five-minute span during the second period to take the last of the wind from Notre Dame’s sails.
Freshman Joey Benik started the burst with the first of his two power-play goals in the game with 10:32 left in the period. A long shot from Huskies defenseman Nick Jensen produced a rebound that skipped out to Benik, who was standing by himself at the bottom of Notre Dame’s faceoff circle for an easy putback goal that gave St. Cloud State a 2-0 lead.
“It started with a bad penalty. We took a stick penalty and couldn’t kill it off and they just got momentum from that,” said Irish goalie Steven Summerhays, who stopped 14 of the 18 shots he faced before he was replaced at the start of the third period.
Benik’s line mate, center Cory Thorson, stuffed a shot through Summerhays’ five hole from point blank range four minutes later after an Irish turnover behind their own net. St. Cloud’s next shot came from another turnover, this one in the neutral zone, which led to an odd-man rush that leading scorer Jonny Brodzinski finished with his 22nd goal of the year.
The Huskies controlled the ice between the blue lines for most of the game, which kept Notre Dame from ever settling into the style that landed them a No. 1 seed in the postseason. The Irish have been at their best this season — and throughout head coach Jeff Jackson’s tenure — when they can control the puck and patiently wait for scoring opportunities. St. Cloud State crowded the neutral zone by lining up four players across their blue line and eliminating passing lanes.
Notre Dame managed only three shots on goal during the second period and 18 total. Last weekend in Detroit, where the Irish played some of their best hockey of the year, they averaged 37.5 shots per game.
“A lot of speed is created through puck movement … we made too many mistakes with the puck through the neutral zone, which makes you look slower,” Jackson said. “St. Cloud clogs up the middle really well, and that’s what happens. No, we didn’t look the same [as in Detroit].”
The Irish managed to keep pace with St. Cloud State through the first 10 minutes of the game before captain Ben Hanowski beat Summerhays on the first of three rebound goals. Irish captain Anders Lee had a chance to respond less than 30 seconds later. He kicked a puck past Huskies goalie Ryan Faragher, but referees waved it off after a video review.
“The play happened so fast. I was trying to get it back to my stick and it just went to the goalie instead. It was clearly a kicking motion,” Lee said.
“The first goal was the huge turning point in this game,” St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzo said. “You want to get the first goal, and then to get the one disallowed, then we were able to settle in. That was a critical factor. I think it was back and forth to start.”
Jackson put senior Mike Johnson in net to start the third period in a last ditch effort to create a spark for his team, but penalties quickly extinguished any hope for a miracle comeback. Notre Dame took four penalties in the first 10 minutes of the period and seven overall. St. Cloud State, the least penalized team in the country this season, was whistled only once all game.
Irish junior Mike Voran scored shorthanded eight minutes into the final period to end Faragher’s shutout. St. Cloud State responded minutes later with its second power-play goal from Benik.
Saturday’s game in some ways mirrored the 2012-13 season for Notre Dame, which ended in a 25-13-3 record. A rough patch midway through the season kept a very talented team from reaching its regular season potential. A five-minute span of breakdowns midway through the second period knocked the Irish out this weekend in a pattern that played out several times during the past few months.
“That’s happened a lot to us this year where a stretch of a couple of minutes has really been a dagger and unfortunately it happened tonight,” Summerhays said.
The loss dropped Notre Dame to 1-3 all time when playing as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Irish lost to Bemidji State 5-1 the last time they started the tournament as a heavy favorite. The program’s two recent runs to the Frozen Four have come as a No. 4 seed and a No. 3 seed. Each of those bids also fell short of a national title.
“They had a good season, not good enough,” Jackson said. “Plain and simple. Until our program wins a national championship I won’t feel like we accomplished what we set out to do.”
St. Cloud State (25-15-1) advances to play the winner of the Miami-Minnesota State match up Sunday for a chance to advance to the Frozen Four.