Tight Denver forecheck pressures Notre Dame out of Final Four

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published by The Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper, on April 7.

By Zach Klonsinski

CHICAGO — Denver’s forecheck was as good as advertised Thursday night, turning the Frozen Four’s second semifinal into a 6-1 loss and a long night for the Irish at the United Center.

The Pioneers never let Notre Dame breathe in its defensive zone, starting from the game’s first shift when Irish freshman forward Cam Morrison bobbled the puck as he was coming across the Irish blue line. Denver pounced on the loose puck and sent it deep.

Then the Pioneer forecheck was on.

A shift later, Irish sophomore defenseman Bobby Nardella hesitated after receiving a pass, eventually trying to send the puck across the middle of the ice. By then, a Pioneer forechecker had closed the gap on Nardella though. The puck ricocheted off him and slowly trickled out, just shy of Notre Dame’s blue line. A Denver shot from there was blocked, but the puck bounced into the corner.

And the forecheck was back on.

A few more shifts later, Notre Dame cleared the zone, but a forward got too much of an attempted tip-in dump. Instead of making the Denver defense turn and chase, the puck slowly wobbled out to the middle of the ice. A Pioneer defenseman stepped up and fired the puck to a forward, who successfully tipped it deep into the Irish zone, past the defensemen, demonstrating perfectly what Notre Dame had failed to do just a second earlier.

And the Denver forecheck was on once again.

Irish junior goaltender Cal Petersen stands in the net during Notre Dame’s 6-1 loss to Denver on Thursday at the United Center in Chicago. Petersen had 36 saves in the game, which ended Notre Dame’s season. | Photo by Kathleen Donahue, The Observer

Another Irish turnover just over eight minutes into the first period allowed Denver to keep the puck in the zone. Fourth-line Pioneer senior forward Emil Romig beat the Irish around the net, avoided a sweeping pokecheck by Irish junior netminder Cal Petersen and looped around to shoot from the sharp angle.

The puck hit Petersen’s shoulder, then the back of the net. The rout was officially on.

“We probably could have had crisper passes out of the zone,” Irish junior defenseman Jordan Gross said. “We struggled with some turnovers in and around the neutral zone. We needed to get pucks deep and wear down their defensemen.

“If we did a better job of that, it would have been a better outcome.”

The hidden side of a strong forecheck is how much responsibility it takes off its own defense, though, and how difficult it is for the opposing forwards to get any sort of momentum rolling. Whenever the Irish managed to beat the pressure, they immediately headed to the bench and change after a full shift. This often left just the Irish just a single forechecker to maintain an ineffective presence the Pioneers had no trouble passing around, gaining speed on the rush into the Notre Dame zone for yet another wave of offensive pressure.

“Puck management, when we’re playing well that’s our game,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “When we manage the puck out of our zone you’re not playing defense. We improved so much in the second half of the year, but it showed up again tonight where we weren’t making good plays coming out of our zone or good plays through the neutral zone.”

“When our forecheck is going, it makes the game really easy for the [defensemen],” Denver senior defenseman Will Butcher said. “We can gap up, and we can stay right on their forwards in our offensive zone.

“When our forwards are playing well it makes our job as defensemen even easier.”

It showed: Notre Dame took over five minutes to even register its first shot attempt, then another minute to record a shot on goal. The Irish totaled just 17 shots on the evening compared to 42 for the Pioneers.

Despite being completely dominated for the first 20 minutes, the Irish entered the dressing room down just 2-0, a deficit they overcame against Minnesota in their first NCAA tournament contest two weekends ago.

And for most of the second period, Notre Dame had at least managed to nail enough boards in front of the door to keep Denver at bay. A big hit by sophomore defenseman Dennis Gilbert and a couple one-man-act shifts by junior forward Anders Bjork even managed to enliven a slightly pro-Notre Dame crowd.

The boards gave way 14:07 into the second period. Irish junior defenseman Luke Ripley blew a tire skating retreating toward the Irish zone, and the Pioneers capitalized on the resulting two-on-one to make it 3-0.

“That third goal was the back killer,” Jackson said. “It was very similar to the Minnesota game last week where we got that next goal, but that didn’t happen tonight.”

Denver added two more goals before the buzzer, and soon Notre Dame was simply watching its season slip away.

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