CHICAGO - Some disbelief washed over the Notre Dame hockey team eventually.
Little puck possession, turnovers, defensemen losing their edge and falling down. That’s not how the Irish envisioned their third trip to the Frozen Four unfolding. Not even close. How had it devolved into a blowout so quickly?
Those were the questions after a 6-1 national semifinal loss to top-ranked Denver, which advances to face Minnesota-Duluth on Saturday in the NCAA tournament title game.
“They know how to possess the puck for sure,” winger Anders Bjork said. “That was tough for us. We haven’t played a team as good as them in the (offensive) zone all year. It was a bit of a shock. I think they came out an did what we wanted to do. I think we kinda got caught up in the moment there, which was tough.”
Denver (32-7-4) overwhelmed the Irish early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first 15 minutes while dominating the puck. Notre Dame mustered just three shots on goal in the first period while surrendering 13, a couple of which beat goalie Cal Petersen.
Emil Romig capped off a long stretch of possession in the Notre Dame zone with a top shelf goal eight minutes and 18 seconds into the game. Henrik Borgstrom followed with his 22nd of the season at 14:50, tapping the puck into an open net after defenseman Will Butcher circled around the back of the net and left a centering pass.
Intermission provided a brief respite, but no solutions.
Notre Dame (23-12-5) mustered just eight shots in the second period. Meanwhile, the Pioneers moved from mere body blows to knockout punches.
“I felt like we were turning the corner then we had a defenseman fall down,” head coach Jeff Jackson said. “Then everything changed. I thought we started getting a little bit more comfortable playing the game at that pace. But that third goal was a back killer.”
Three more Denver goals in the second period choked off any hope of an Irish comeback.
Tariq Hammond made it 3-0 by finishing off an odd-man rush after Irish defenseman Luke Ripley fell down. Evan Janssen carried to puck toward Petersen then slid it to Hammond, who poked it into another open net.
Dylan Gambrell and Evan Ritt scored at 16:27 and 18:18 of the second period, respectively, pushing the Pioneers lead to 5-0 ahead of the third period.
“We’ve shown time and time again that we don’t really ever say it’s over until it’s over,” Petersen said. “Obviously, a lot of credit goes to them. Even when it was 5-1 or 6-1, they were still pinning us in our zone and coming hard. Like I said, that should be a team that we look up to and emulate next year. But obviously, the third one was tough. That was a save that I think I should’ve made to be able to try and turn the game. But it’s tough, a 3-0 lead is hard to come back from.”
Cam Morrison scored a power-play goal at 11:24 of the third to get Notre Dame on the score sheet. Gambrell answered with his second goal of the game at 16:42, putting the final touch on a thorough Denver performance.
Notre Dame players, in the end, had a difficult time reconciling a final blowout defeat with a strong season and unexpected Frozen Four run.
“Not a ton of positives you can take away from that game,” Petersen said. “The only thing is the fact that we got here and we made the run that we did. That’s something to obviously be very proud of, especially considering the growth from the first weekend of the year to the last weekend of the year.
“I think that’s kinda gotta be the only thing that comes on our mind. Hopefully for trying to get back here next year, take that experience and take it to whatever opponent we have like they did to us.”