Michigan State rallies to knock off Notre Dame

John Fineran Tribune Correspondent
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Senior center and captain Jake Evans tried his best Saturday night to send Big Ten regular-season champion Notre Dame into its tournament bye week on a high note.

But he was no match for Michigan State’s vaunted KHL — center Patrick Knodorenko, left wing Taro Hirose and right wing Mitch Lewandowski — and 21-year-old sophomore defenseman Jerad Rosburg who got his hockey start in South Bend’s Irish Youth Hockey League.

Held scoreless Friday night, the Spartan forward trio had a hand in four goals as last-place Michigan State rallied from one-goal deficits three times before winning 4-3 in the regular-season finale for both teams with 5,174 watching at the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena.

Evans had a goal and assisted on Notre Dame’s two other goals by freshman right wing Colin Theisen and junior defenseman Dennis Gilbert.

But Lewandowski, the Big Ten’s likely Freshman of the Year, scored his 18th and 19th goals, Hirose had a goal and an assist and Khodorenko assisted on Rosburg’s game-winning goal at 8:50 of the third period.

Rosburg, who assisted on Lewandowski’s two goals, was a four-year-old Mighty Mite in South Bend in 2000 when his father Jerry was in his second year on Bob Davie’s Irish football staff.

First-year coach Danton Cole, a former Spartan under the late Ron Mason from 1985-89, saw his team, which finished 6-16-2-1 in the Big Ten cellar improve to 12-20-2 overall heading into next weekend’s first-round, best-of-three Big Ten playoff series at Ohio State.

Notre Dame, which received a first-round bye into the tournament and hosts a semifinal game March 10 against the lowest-seeded, first-round survivor, dropped to 23-9-2 overall and 17-6-1-1.

“As I’ve said all season long, it’s extremely hard to beat the same team four times in a row,” said Irish coach Jeff Jackson, himself a former Spartan goalie in the last 1970s. “That’s one of the top lines in college hockey.”

The Spartans outshot and outhustled the Irish in the second and third period, totaling 30 of their 36 shots on goal in the final 40 minutes. Notre Dame finished with 26 shots at goalie John Lethemon, who made 23 saves. Irish goalie Cale Morris had 32 saves, 27 in the final two periods.

“I thought we were good in the first period but we fell off in the second,” Jackson added. “I have no idea why it happened. I thought we had some life in the third, but obviously they scored that faceoff goal. Those are the details of the game and they capitalized.”

The Irish, wearing kelly green jerseys for Senior Night, and the Spartans totaled just 13 shots on goal in the first period that ended 1-1, with Notre Dame totaling seven.

Theisen, who should garner a few votes for a spot on the All-Big Ten freshman team, put the Irish ahead 1-0 at 12:35 when he beat Lethemon glove-side high for his sixth goal of the season after taking a nice feed from Evans, his 26th assist of the season.

But the Spartans tied it just under five minutes later after the Irish turned the puck over while trying to clear. Defenseman Carson Gatt intercepted the puck at the center point and fired at the net, and sophomore left wing Hirose tipped it home at 17:31.

Theisen received a slashing penalty at 19:55 and the penalty carried into the second period when Evans demonstrated his defensive and offensive abilities to give the Irish a 2-1 lead.

First, as a penalty-killer, Evans dumped the puck off the boards to center ice and tried to maneuver around MSU’s Mitchell Lewandowski in an attempt to duplicate his shorthanded, breakaway goal in Friday’s victory. But Lewandowski pulled Evans down and then went to the penalty box for interference at 1:13.

After Theisen’s penalty expired, the Irish power-play unit went to work. Cam Morrison, who scored twice in Friday’s victory, fed senior defenseman Jordan Gross at the right point. Gross, playing in his 152nd consecutive game since arriving on campus, fed it in the slot to Evans, who had his back to the net. Evans, playing in his 125th straight game, wheeled around and fired the puck past Lethemon at 2:44.

But the Spartans tied it once again at 13:14 when defenseman Rosburg’s 25-foot blast seemed to stun Morris and the rebound fell onto the stick of Lewandowski, who slammed it home.

The Spartans appeared to take a 3-2 lead 63 seconds later when Logan Lamboin fired home a rebound, but an officials’ replay showed a Spartan in the crease interfered with Morris’ attempt to stop the shot.

Morris made 17 saves in the period. He figured to be busy at the start of the third with teammate Andrew Oglevie in the box for slashing for another 91 seconds.

Evans once again figured in a shorthanded goal at 0:42 of the third period when he broke in with Jack Jenkins on a 2-on-1 break. Evans slid the puck over to Jenkins, whose shot beat Lethemon but not the pipe. The MSU goalie, however, was out of position when Gilbert gathered the rebound and deposited it into the empty net for a 3-2 Irish lead.

But that lead didn’t last long, either, as Lewandowski scored his second of the game and the 19th of the season with help from Rosburg and Hirose at 3:20.

Then the KHL line struck again at 8:50 when Khodorenko won a faceoff draw from Evans and the puck came back to Rosburg, whose blast bounced off Morris’ shoulder and into the net for a 4-3 lead.

First-round matchups set

With Ohio State and Penn State completing weekend home sweeps of Wisconsin and Minnesota, respectively, the seedings for the first-round, best-of-three playoff series are set.

The Buckeyes, who beat Wisconsin 4-0, will host the Spartans in one of three series set to begin Friday at 7 p.m. The Badgers, meanwhile, fly to Ann Arbor to meet the red-hot Wolverines at 7:30 Friday night. Michigan completed its regular season with a 5-3 non-league victory over Arizona State.

The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, beat visiting Minnesota 5-2, leaping over the Gophers for fourth place. That means former Notre Dame defenseman Don Lucia’s Gophers must return to University Park, Pa., next weekend for the playoffs.

The lowest of the four remaining seeds after next weekend will play at Notre Dame Saturday, March 10.

Pairwise has Irish No. 2

The Pairwise Comparison Ratings, used by the Division I selection committee to determine the 16 teams and their seedings for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, had Notre Dame No. 2 following Friday night’s slate of games.

The top Pairwise spot belonged to top-ranked St. Cloud State, 20-6-5 after Friday night’s 1-1 tie with defending NCAA champion Denver, its chief rival in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC).

Behind Notre Dame was Cornell (23-3-2) of the ECAC Hockey with Minnesota State (26-7-0) of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA).

If those four teams remain that way through the upcoming league playoffs, which is unlikely, they would probably be the top seeds when the NCAA tournament bracket is announced March 18 at noon on ESPNU. The tournament begins with regional action at Bridgeport, Conn. (East) and Sioux City, S.D. (West) on March 23-24. Regionals at Worcester, Mass. (Northeast) and Allentown, Pa. (Midwest) are scheduled for March 24-25.

Bracketology stories in recent weeks had Notre Dame No. 1 in Allentown until their recent struggles. Now some are speculating the Irish will be the top seed in Worcester and playing old Hockey East rival Boston College, which has its campus about a 40-minute drive away in Boston.

Photo courtesy Notre Dame