It was the seniors’ night at the Joyce Center on Saturday as Notre Dame’s class of 2003 played its final regular-season home game. And, in the end, the seniors came through in a big way, guiding the Irish to a crucial 5-2 win over Western Michigan in front of a sellout crowd.
Senior goaltender Tony Zasowski got the surprise start in goal and kicked out 25 shots, surrendering just two power-play goals, in just his fifth start of the season. Senior forwards Connor Dunlop and John Wroblewski scored big insurance goals and defenseman Evan Nielsen set up Matt Amado’s game-winning goal.
The win was key for the Irish as it moved them back into a three-way tie with the Broncos and Northern Michigan. Each team has 27 points on the year. Notre Dame is now 14-14-6 overall and 12-11-3 in league play while Western Michigan falls to 15-17-2 and 13-12-1 in the CCHA.
Dave Poulin told his team at the pregame skate that all the seniors would start — a move that paid off for the Irish head coach.
“I decided this morning to start the six seniors. Everyone was excited to see Jake (Wiegand) line up on defense,” said Poulin.
“Those guys have been through a lot in their four seasons and they deserved to be out there. Maybe they can pass on the things that they’ve done to the younger players. Their legacy can be the first team to go to Joe Louis Arena three times in four years and that’s what their goal is now.”
Zasowski came up big for one last time in front of the home fans.
“We found out this morning that we were starting. I was excited to get the start on Senior Night. My last start was in Chicago and I thought that might be my last one. It was great to be able to help the team to a big win like this one,” said Zasowski.
While the seniors played a key role in the win, junior Kyle Dolder did his part to jump start the Irish attack as he set up the first goal and scored the second to give Notre Dame a 2-0 lead.
Dolder carried the puck along the right wing boards at center and slid the puck ahead to Aaron Gill just inside the blue line. Gill did the rest as he went around a Bronco defenseman, pulled goaltender Scott Foster down and flipped a backhander under the crossbar for his 10th goal of the year at 11:55.
Dolder gave the Irish a two-goal lead just 4:03 into the second period when defenseman Brett Lebda put him in all alone on Foster. The right wing whipped a shot past the Bronco goaltender for his second goal of the season.
“This time of the year, we need contributions from everyone and tonight we got them. Kyle has great hands and really made two big plays for us tonight,” said Poulin.
Western Michigan got back into the game with two second-period power-play goals. Vince Bellissimo scored on a tip-in at 7:16 for his 16th of the season to cut the lead to 2-1. Defenseman Dave Cousineau tied the game at 2-2 when he scored on a blast from the point on a five-on-three power play chance at 19:06.
Instead of folding, the Irish came out strong in the third, scoring three times.
“We talked in the locker room about what had happened in the second period was behind us. We finally realized that we had a 20-minute game to play,” said defenseman Neil Komadoski.
“We came out and worked hard and things started to click and we put the puck in the net and got a big win.”
Freshman Matt Amado got the game winner at 13:37. He took a long lead pass from Neilsen and beat goaltender Mike Mantua with a neat move in close for his fourth goal of the season. Mantua replaced Foster in goal following WMU’s first goal in the second period; Foster took a knee to the head in a goalmouth collision and was forced to leave.
Dunlop added the insurance goal just 1:29 later at 15:06 when he took a drop pass at the blue line from Rob Globke and blasted a slapshot past Mantua from the top of the left wing circle for his sixth of the season.
Wroblewski sealed the deal with an empty-net goal at 19:17, his 16th of the campaign, and the Irish remained in the hunt for home ice in the CCHA playoffs.
For the game, the Irish outshot the Broncos 30-27. Foster made 14 saves in 27:16 of playing time while Mantua took the loss with 11 saves in 32:27.
The Irish travel to Northern Michigan to close the regular season next weekend. Where they finish in the final standings is up to them.
“It’s strange how things are still up in the air for most teams going into the final weekend of the season. I think it shows how balanced this league is,” said Poulin.