Wait finally over for Galajda, Irish in NCAA hockey showdown with North Dakota

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent
Notre Dame goaltender Matthew Galajda (35) during the Notre Dame-Michigan Big Ten  hockey game on Friday, February 25, 2022, at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Indiana.

Thursday night shortly after 6 p.m. when the puck is finally dropped at the MVP Arena in Albany, New York, the long waits for goaltender Matthew Galajda and the Notre Dame hockey team to play their next NCAA Tournament games will have ended.

It has been 1,089 days since the Fighting Irish and their graduate-transfer goalie from Cornell last played in an NCAA game, but that all ends when third-seed Notre Dame (27-11-0) meets second-seed North Dakota (24-13-1) in the second semifinal at the Albany Regional.

Ironically, coach Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish lost to Massachusetts 4-0 in the Northeast Regional championship game at the SNHU Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, on the same day – March 31, 2019 – when Galajda and his Cornell Big Red teammates fell by the same score to host Providence in the East Regional title game at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center 100 miles south.

During that time, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic happened, cutting the 2019-20 dead in its tracks for both the 15-15-4 Irish and the 23-2-4 Big Red, whom Galajda had backstopped every step of the way and who were on a nine-game winning streak when the season ended.

The 2020-21 season, Galajda’s senior season far above Cayuga Lake’s waters in Ithaca, New York, never happened as the Ivy League shut down completely. Notre Dame, however, finished an abbreviated Big Ten season at 14-13-2 and received an NCAA Regional bid to play Catholic-rival Boston College in Albany. But when they arrived, the Irish never got on the ice at the MVP Arena because of a COVID-19 outbreak following the Big Ten Tournament Notre Dame was host to in South Bend.

Notre Dame starting goaltender Matthew Galajda (35) stands for the national anthem before the game against Minnesota Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in South Bend.

► Big Ten honors:Max Ellis leads four Notre Dame hockey players honored by Big Ten coaches and media

About a month later, the 24-year-old Canadian, who hails from the northern Toronto suburb of Aurora, decided to transfer to Notre Dame to finish out a college career that in three seasons at Cornell produced these impressive credentials – a 60-15-9 record, 19 shutouts, a 1.64 goals-against average, a .930 save percentage, All-America honors as a freshman and two Mike Richter Goaltender of the Year finalists as a freshman and junior. 

The ice at the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena and elsewhere around the Big Ten Conference has been almost as kind to Galajda as what he had previously at Cornell’s Lynah Rink and elsewhere in ECAC (Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference) Hockey. In 24 games (23 starts) for the Fighting Irish, Galajda has a 1.98 goals-against average, a .930 save percentage and two shutouts while compiling a 17-7 record.

“The biggest thing for me was looking for a combination of school and hockey,” said Galajda, who got an undergrad degree in hotel management at Cornell and is completing a master’s degree in business analytics at Notre Dame. “I wasn’t sure what to expect coming in, but it has exceeded my expectations. I love the school, I love my (academic) program, I’ve been able to make some friends outside the hockey team, and our team shares a special bond.”

Galajda and returning junior Ryan Bischel gave Jackson one of the best goaltending tandems in the nation before Galajda forged in front in mid-February with a 3-2 victory at Wisconsin and stayed there as the starter. With that victory, the Irish are 7-2 in Galajda’s nine starts during which he has compiled a 1.80 goals-against average and .943 save percentage while allowing 10 even-strength goals.

“You’ve got to get good goaltending at this time of the year, and Matt has played well the last month,” Jackson said following Notre Dame’s last game on March 12, a 2-1 loss at Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals following Galajda’s 29-save performance against one of college hockey’s most prolific and talented teams.

Galajda is quick to credit the defensemen in front of him, particularly grad-transfer (from Cornell) Adam Karashik and seniors Spencer Stastney and Nick Leivermann, for a lot of his success. They have blocked 200 of the 556 shots headed toward Galajda and Bischel.

“Our defensemen are warriors,” Galajda said. “They are extremely strong, and they do a great job trying to make my job as easy as it can be.”

“We have a great goalie in net,” said Karashik, who grew up in Connecticut about two hours away from Albany, played collegiately at UConn and will be making his first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. “We always want to win our net front. If we take of those rebounds, we’re going to be good to go. We’ve been working for this all year.”

►Karashik's blocks: Hockey: Karashik’s blocks speaking volumes for No. 8 Notre Dame

Galajda knows the 10th-ranked Irish will have their hands full against No. 8 North Dakota, which shared the regular-season title of the highly competitive National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) with No. 4 Denver. The NCHC has five teams – North Dakota, Denver, tourney champion Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan – in the NCAA field. Led by sophomore left wing Riese Gaber, who has scored seven of his team-high 15 goals on the power play, coach Brad Berry’s Fighting Hawks have overcome a bunch of injuries this season to win their last seven one-goal games.

Interestingly, two of North Dakota’s 13 losses came in early January at Grand Forks against Galajda’s undergraduate alma mater Cornell by scores of 4-3 and 3-1. Galajda watched those games with a lot of interest.

“I never remember thinking we might play North Dakota,” Galajda said. “But at the same time, it’s going to be a great opportunity for us and our team to compete against a great team like North Dakota. We’re going to have to focus on ourselves and bring it come Thursday.”

NCAA HOCKEY

Who: Notre Dame (27-11-0) vs. North Dakota (24-13-1)

What: Albany (N.Y.) Regional semifinal

Where: MVP Arena

When: Thursday at 6 p.m. EDT

Watch: ESPNU

Waves: WZOC-FM (94.3) and UND.com

Winner: Plays Minnesota State-Harvard winner in Saturday’s championship for trip to Frozen Four semifinals April 7 at Boston’s TD Garden