Early this season, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said he was waiting for a goalie to show him something. Junior Dave Brown may have finally become that goalie this weekend as the Irish split a home-and-home series with Western Michigan.
Brown relieved Freshman Jordan Pearce in the third quarter of Friday's 4-3 loss to the Broncos in Kalamzoo, Mich. He made seven saves and did not allow a goal as Notre Dame stormed back from a three-goal deficit in the final period.
Brown started and earned the fifth shutout of his career Saturday in a 3-0 victory at the Joyce Center.
The win ended a five-game winless streak for the Irish and improved Notre Dame's record to 4-9-1 and 3-6-1 in the CCHA.
"[Brown has] played well [all season]," Jackson said of Saturday's performance. "I thought we played well in front of him, didn't give them a lot of chances. There were no back-door situations. He made the saves we needed made, and he made some when we really needed them."
Junior defenseman Wes O'Neill opened the scoring for the Irish Saturday with a power-play goal 1:46 into the second period. Bronco defenseman Jonathan Lupa was called for holding as time expired in the first period, giving the Irish a one-man advantage to open the second. O'Neill redirected a centering pass from junior left wing Josh Sciba past Western goalie Daniel Bellissimo.
"Actually, it was a broken play," O'Neill said of his goal. "The guy was pressuring me, so I cut down the wall and got a great pass from [Sciba]."
The game represented a renaissance of sorts for O'Neill, who also recorded an assist. After going pointless for the last four games, O'Neill was key to the Irish victory Saturday.
"It the best game he's played for us this year," Jackson said of the junior. "Confidence is a funny thing. When [players] lose their confidence, they don't have as much energy. I had a little talk with him this morning about his game last night and how he prepares himself to play, and he was one of the best players on the ice."
The Broncos threatened to even the game after the puck went into a corner. Junior defenseman Tom Sawatske was called for clubbing a Western player in the back of the head in the ensuing melee. With one official holding his arm up for a delayed penalty, another called Sciba for tripping. Both Irish players were sent to the penalty box and Notre Dame found itself at a 5-on-3 disadvantage.
The Broncos were unable to score however, as the Irish defense cleared the puck four times and allowed only one shot, which Brown saved easily.
"That was a turning point in the game for us, to be able to kill off a 5-on-3," Jackson said. "Penalty killing hasn't been our specialty, but guys were blocking shots and sacrificing and realizing what they needed to get done."
The Irish added to their lead at the 5:59 mark of the third period. After a charging call on Western center Sean Weaver gave Notre Dame a power play, O'Neill found himself with the puck behind the Bronco net. He flipped a pass into a crowd between the face-off circles and senior left wing Mike Walsh batted it past Bellissimo.
Notre Dame capped off the game with its first five-on-five goal of the night at 17:31 of the third when junior center Jason Paige rocketed a shot past Bellissimo from the point.
The game was one of the cleanest the Irish have played this year, with only ten penalties committed between the two squads, including just one in the third period.
"It was good game because the official called the game," Jackson said. "He didn't call what everyone wants him to call. He didn't make things up, which added more tempo and flow to the game."
Western Michigan 4,
Notre Dame 3
The Irish fell behind 4-1 Friday in Kalamazoo but mounted a comeback that gave them some momentum for Saturday night.
"Coach talked about us making sure we get back to the little things that make us a complete hockey team," O'Neill said of Jackson's second intermission speech that carried over to the next night.
The game got off to a fast start with a goal by both teams in the first 33 seconds.
Notre Dame forward Tim Wallace took a loose puck off the opening face-off and skated down the ice to score just nine seconds into the game. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, it would give up four goals before finding the back of the net again.
Twenty-four seconds after Wallace's goal, Western right wing Daryl Moore blasted a shot into a crowd in front of the Irish net from the right face-off circle.
The puck hit a stick and flew up in the air, landing behind Pearce and trickling into the net.
Less than three minutes later, Broncos star forward Brent Walton scored the first of his three goals on the night. Walton took a pass from defenseman Ryan Mahrle, skated into the Notre Dame zone and ripped the puck past Pearce's outstretched glove to give the Broncos a 2-1 lead 3:23 into the game.
"I thought that [Western Michigan] came out flying for the first ten minutes, but after the first ten minutes, we played pretty well," Jackson said of the game's high-scoring early going.
Walton would add to the lead in the second period. His slap shot from the left circle skipped along the ice and got underneath Pearce's pads to put Western up by two.
Just 44 seconds later, Walton completed his hat trick when he fought through a crowd to get to the rebound of a shot by defenseman Jason Moul.
"We gave up a couple of bad goals on shots Jordan Pearce would usually stop, but a couple of them went in the net, which really put us on our heals," Jackson said of the Bronco's scoring outburst.
The Irish would answer after Paige stole an errant pass in the Western zone and banged home his first goal of the year.
Brown replaced Pearce in goal and held the Broncos scoreless, but Notre Dame could only muster a Sciba goal at 10:04 of the third period and the comeback fell short.
The Irish get only two days off before returning to the ice in Mankato, Minn., against Minnesota State Tuesday.