With Irish in title game, Jackson's turnaround of Notre Dame nearly complete
DENVER -- On the long walk from the dressing room to the ice en route to overtime, Ryan Thang had a message for his Notre Dame teammates.
"Come on boys, somebody make history tonight," Thang bellowed down the hallway. "It just takes one shot."
Calle Ridderwall was listening.
The freshman from Stockholm, Sweden, gathered a rebound in the high slot and beat Bryan Hogan stick side for a 5-4 Irish overtime win against No. 1 overall seed Michigan.
"We got the puck out to the point and Dan VeNard put it on net and I was fortunate enough to get the rebound," Ridderwall said. "I just took a quick shot, didn't really look and got lucky."
Team captain Mark Van Guilder saw a different version of the game-winner -- make that history-maker: "It looked like he picked a corner and knew exactly what he was doing."
Eyes closed. Eyes open. Semantics.
Either way, the victory advanced Notre Dame (27-15-4) to its first-ever national championship game on Saturday night (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) against Boston College, a 6-1 winner earlier Thursday in the other national semifinal.
Notre Dame jumped out to a 3-0 first-period lead, which would have been a bit of a surprise if the Irish hadn't done something similar on Jan. 18 in Ann Arbor. But that 2-0 lead disappeared when goaltender Billy Sauer didn't give up another goal and the Wolverines came back to win 3-2.
Sauer didn't get a chance at redemption this time around.
Red Berenson made the decision in the first intermission to pull Sauer and replace him with freshman Bryan Hogan, who had played all of five games this season.
"Had I not watched the North Dakota game, I may not have pulled him," Berenson said. "He's been our bread-and-butter goalie all year. I just didn't like the way the game was going and Billy looked like he was fighting the puck.
"So it doesn't matter what you've done, and we had to change the momentum in the game. It was a tough decision for Billy, but you're trying to win the game."
It turned out to be a return to his personal house of horrors for Sauer. A Colorado Avalanche draft pick, the junior gave up seven goals in this building in an 8-5 loss to North Dakota at last year's West Regional.
So in 79:51 minutes of play, Sauer has surrendered 10 goals on 32 shots in the Pepsi Center. All of which makes you wonder whether he'll ever play on this ice surface again.
With Sauer standing next to Berenson the rest of the night, Hogan stepped in and played well. He ended up with 18 saves on 20 shots faced and held the Irish in check as Michigan stormed back to tie the game at 3-3 early in the third.
After one more goal each to finish regulation, the Irish took control in the extra session. Michigan gave up several odd-man rushes and was out shot 8-4 in the 5:44 it took to finish the game.
"We didn't look good in the overtime," Berenson said. "We were on our heels. We're a team that plays to win and we like overtime. I felt good about our team, but we didn't play well. We were passive defensively. We had a sloppy overtime.
"These games are never won with good plays. It's usually ugly plays and second efforts that win it or lose it."
After the game ended, Hogan was frozen for a while in the Michigan crease before alternate captain Chad Kolarik skated over to console him.
"I just thanked him," Kolarik said. "He gave us seniors a chance and that's all you can ask from your goalie. It was a rebound, but we have to pick up sticks and we have to take guys so it wasn't his fault."
Hogan deserves credit for keeping Michigan in the game, but the loss for the high-powered Wolverines was almost as stunning as the fact that Notre Dame is playing for a national championship on Saturday night.
Think about that.
We're not talking Notre Dame football. We're talking hockey -- about a program practically left for dead in South Bend, Ind., until Jeff Jackson arrived three seasons ago to resurrect it. And one that some students on campus still don't know even exists.
"My freshman year I was just hoping to maybe make the tournament once," Van Guilder said. "When Coach Jackson showed up my sophomore year, the whole attitude changed, the whole culture changed. It's been quite a turnaround."
Notre Dame went 5-27-6 during Van Guilder's first year in Indiana. That improved to 13-19-4 in 2005-06 and then 32-7-3 last year. This year saw a slight step back in terms of record, but the Irish have experienced an up-and-down second half that appears to have made them tougher along the way.
"I thought it was going to take us five years, but I didn't realize the type of kids who were already in the program when I took the job," Jackson said. "I was just trying to change the culture, the work ethic and the discipline.
"The culture changed because they wanted it to change. They wanted to be successful. So they were willing to buy into anything we were selling."
Right now, what Jackson is selling is one more shot at history.
David Albright is the senior deputy editor for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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