MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Another year, another bitter pill for the New Hampshire faithful to swallow, as the UNH Wildcats hit yet another wall in the NCAA regional finals.
This year, that wall had a name, as Notre Dame goalie Mike Johnson constantly frustrated the high-powered Wildcats (22-11-6), leading the Irish (25-13-5) to a 2-1 win to capture the Northeast regional and a trip to the Frozen Four. As a result, Hockey East failed to send a team to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005, a span that includes the past three national champions.
Johnson finished with 37 saves -- many qualifying as outright larceny -- and precious few rebounds to take the Northeast regional's Most Outstanding Player honors.
"I've seen him play like that several times this season," said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. "Once he does that on a nightly basis, he'll be an elite goaltender. He has the tools."
It was the third straight year that the Wildcats won their opening regional match -- the only team in the country to do so -- only to lose the following night. Although UNH has made the NCAA tournament 10 consecutive years, the second-longest active streak in the nation, it hasn't reached the Frozen Four since 2003.
"They can't beat the jinx," muttered one dejected UNH supporter as the crowd filed out of the Verizon Wireless Arena after the final whistle.
"Once again, we had a great group of players and the senior class was tremendous," UNH coach Dick Umile said. "Three times we've lost in the regional finals. I feel for them. They've done everything they could to get to the Frozen Four. It's disappointing."
New Hampshire, the last remaining eastern squad in the NCAAs, came out firing, blistering several high-quality shots on Johnson. At 1:15, UNH's Stevie Moses narrowly missed giving the Wildcats an early lead, taking a behind-the-net dish from Kevin Goumas and snapping a shot behind Johnson that clanged off the right post.
Notre Dame's bend-but-don't-break defense paid dividends at 7:26. Notre Dame's Stephen Johns took a soft feed from center Riley Sheahan and fired a bullet that beat a screened Matt DiGirolamo cleanly for a 1-0 Irish lead.
A UNH power play at the midway point of the period kept the pressure on the Irish net, but the Wildcats couldn't solve Johnson. The Wildcats outshot the Irish 13-7 in the opening stanza, but were still behind on the scoreboard.
"We had our chances," Umile said.
The punch-counterpunch quality of the game continue into the second stanza. Notre Dame's Ben Ryan steamrolled DiGirolamo for a charging penalty, but Johnson kept the Wildcats off the board with dazzling glove saves on Goumas and Moses, and another terrific right pad stop on Moses. DiGirolamo was equally sharp in the Wildcat net, stoning Jeff Costello on a point-blank bid.
DiGirolamo came up big again after UNH's Phil DeSimone got whistled off for holding. The UNH netminder first robbed Sheahan at the doorstop, then got his left pad on an Anders Lee backhand bid. Seconds later, Johnson blocked a low snap shot from unmarked Mike Sislo.
With only 21 seconds left in the middle period, Johnson again flashed the leather to snag a sure-fire bid by UNH's John Henrion. That save proved enormous 16 seconds later when Billy Maday plucked a centering pass from Sheahan, pulled the puck to his backhand and roofed it over a sliding DiGirolamo for a back-breaking 2-0 Irish lead.
"The second goal they scored at the end of the period was a tough one," Umile said.
Johnson's mastery over the Wildcats continued into the third, even on broken plays. At 4:38, Moses shot a backhander that was deflected and fell right to Goumas. But the Irish netminder reacted brilliantly, and the UNH freshman was only able to find Johnson's midsection with his shot. There was no rebound.
"I've been trying to convince the kid he can be one of the best goalies in college hockey," Jackson said. "People have to remember he's only a sophomore."
On Sunday night, Johnson not only played like a veteran. He played like an all-star. But DiGirolamo (36 saves) did his part to keep the Wildcats within striking distance, playing rock solid in the UNH net, and shutting down ND's David Gerths with a quick right pad stop at the 12-minute mark and stopping an Anders Lee backhander at 13:20.
Seventeen seconds later, at 13:37, Sislo cut the Notre Dame lead in half, digging a Matt Capanale feed out of his feet and flipping the puck past Johnson, bringing the hometown crowd of 5,906 to its feet.
But 2-1 was as close as the Wildcats would get. UNH had a glorious chance to tie it when Gerths took down Goumas for a two-minute power play at 15:57. Sislo had the best chance, but Johnson kicked out his low post shot. At 18:16, UNH's Mike Beck got tagged for tripping, and Notre Dame was able to run out the clock.
"They were great all through the game," said an emotional Sislo, UNH's senior captain. "Their whole team made it tough to get it on net, and when we did, [Johnson] did a great job of putting it in the corner or sucking it up, not giving up rebounds. He made it real tough for us."
For Jackson and his players, the two weekend wins in Manchester were especially gratifying after the team lost twice in the CCHA playoffs just a week ago.
"For this group to accomplish what they did, with so many young players, is incredible," said the Irish coach. "It's a credit to our leaders and the bond they created."
"After losing two at Joe Louis Arena, we knew we didn't want our season to be over," said Maday, a junior. "We turned it around and got faster and more physical. We did what we needed to do to advance."
The Fighting Irish will take on the winner of the East regional, Minnesota-Duluth, in the semifinals of the Frozen Four at St. Paul, on April 7. It is Notre Dame's second trip to the Frozen Four. Johnson, a native of Minneapolis, said he couldn't wait.