Notre Dame hockey: Rust’s heroics could be turning point for Irish

Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND -- In the moment, Bryan Rust couldn’t really explain what he was feeling late Saturday night.

What he had just done was potentially save Notre Dame’s hockey season. With 1:08 to play and trailing Maine 2-1, a home sweep at the hands of the Black Bears ever closer to becoming reality, Rust tied the game with a wrist shot from the slot, aided by a screen in front by teammate Sam Herr.

Seconds later, the senior right winger took control of the puck at his own blue line, saw an opening, and went for it. Rust weaved up the ice, sped past Maine’s defense, faked his way around defenseman Jake Rutt, and scored again just 24 seconds after his first, giving the Irish a 3-2 win that halted a three-game losing streak.

“(After the tying goal) I skated by the bench and yelled, ‘We’re gonna win this game, there’s no way we’re going to be denied,’” Rust said after Wednesday’s practice and a few more days to let it sink in. “Going into that final shift, getting the puck, I had so much space that I knew I could make a play. It was just a matter of willing the puck into the net.”

It was a moment that helped make up for the difficulty of Friday’s 2-1 loss when the Irish saw the potential game-tying goal overturned by official review.

“That definitely gave us a lot of fuel,” Rust said. “From our perspective, that goal should have counted, but the refs made a call and we can’t change that.

“Our ability to respond, come from behind and score goals quickly was huge for us, Saturday.”

It was a moment that felt like a turning point. Rust thought it could be, as did head coach Jeff Jackson after the game, though he conceded on Wednesday that what happens after the moment is what really counts.

“It’s not a turning point unless we turn the point,” Jackson said. “When you have a big moment, let’s say, hopefully it carries over to the next weekend.”

Rust’s moment was similar to a point last season, when the Irish were on a five-game losing streak in late January and desperate for something to break their way. That break was senior Kevin Nugent’s first career goal, which turned out to be the game-winning goal in a 5-2 win over Ferris State.

The Irish didn’t suddenly turn it all around the next weekend at Ohio State, but that moment helped stop the bleeding, end a losing streak and gave them something to feel good about.

Rust’s goal with 43.6 seconds left to beat Maine may have been just that. Notre Dame, still barely in the national polls at No. 20 this week, have a tough task coming up with two games at No. 9 Providence. The Friars are coming off a rough 3-2 home loss to Connecticut on Tuesday in which they outshot the Huskies, 60-26, but the Irish are just 1-6 on the road in Hockey East play.

Notre Dame will look to build off the success it had late in both Maine games when it finally managed to score a goal each night with an extra attacker, at moments when they absolutely had to have them.

“(Those goals) were all due to grit,” Jackson said. “That’s maybe something we’ve lacked in recent weeks to score goals, especially on the road.”

Tale of two goalies

þþHow the Irish do in Providence could come down to which goaltender shows up in net — for both teams. Through the first half of this season, both PC goalie Jon Gillies and ND backstop Steven Summerhays were among the top-10 goalies in the country. Consider the numbers (with national rank in parentheses) for each from the start of the season through Dec. 7:

Gillies — 10-1-3 record; 1.88 goals-against average (7th); .941 save percentage (5th); 3 shutouts (T-1st)

Summerhays — 9-6-1; 1.88 GAA (10th); .931 SV. (11th); 3 shutouts (T-1st)

But the second half has been a different story for both goaltenders. For part of December, Gillies was in Sweden minding net for the United States in the World Junior Championships. That was the point where the 6-foot-5 sophomore and Calgary Flames draft pick began to have trouble, recording a 2.77 goals-against and .892 save percentage in the tournament. After winning the WJC last year, the U.S. headed home early with a disappointing fifth-place finish. Summerhays, meanwhile, was off for nearly a month during the Christmas break.

Now compare their numbers since Jan. 4:

  • Gillies — 2-5-1; 3.05 GAA; .892 SV.; 0 shutouts
  • Summerhays — 5-5-0; 2.54 GAA; .891 SV.; 2 shutouts

Both Gillies and Summerhays have shown how good, and also how average, they can be. Which version of each shows up this weekend could go a long way in determining the outcome of Notre Dame’s most important series of the season, both in regard to its Hockey East as well as its NCAA tournament fate.

The Irish have seen their share of hot goalies in the past month-plus. Northeastern’s Clay Witt stopped 60 of 63 ND shots three weeks ago, New Hampshire’s Casey DeSmith saved 70 of 74 two weeks ago and Maine’s Martin Ouellette was outstanding last weekend at the Compton Family Ice Arena with 75 saves on 79 Irish shots.

Not surprisingly, Notre Dame finished that stretch 2-4-0, dropping them to 20th in the RPI. With the added importance of road wins to a team’s NCAA resume (earning bonus points in the NCAA’s selection process versus wins at home or neutral ice over ranked teams), performing well at Providence could be a jolt to resuscitate ND’s fading NCAA hopes.

More immediately, the Irish (16-12-1, 5-9-1) are tied for eighth place in Hockey East with 11 league points, five away from fifth place. They still have a shot at grabbing one of those top-5 spots and a first-round bye in the HEA tournament, but may have to settle for a top-8 finish to secure home ice for the first round. Given how this first season in Hockey East has gone, that might be considered a victory at this point.

WHO: No. 20 Notre Dame (16-12-1, 5-9-1 Hockey East) at No. 9 Providence (15-8-5, 7-6-1)

WHEN: Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m.

WHERE: Schneider Arena, Providence, R.I.

TV: CoxSports (Friday only)

ONLINE: (Saturday only, for a fee)