MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Some might call it the luck of the Irish, but it was a pure hustle play by Notre Dame freshman Anders Lee in sudden-death overtime that enable the Fighting Irish to edge Merrimack College, 4-3, in the nightcap of the Northeast Regional.
At the 5:16 mark of overtime, after the No. 2 seed Warriors had laid siege to the Irish defense, ripping six shots at Notre Dame goalie Mike Johnson, Merrimack's Carter Madsen collected the puck behind his own net and looked to break up ice. Lee, hard on the forecheck, forced Madsen to cut inside and then lunged at the puck.
"It was a last-ditch effort," said Lee. "The next thing I knew, it was in the back of the net."
Lee tapped the puck right off Madsen's stick, sending it skipping between the legs of Merrimack goalie Joe Cannata, and sending the Irish into Sunday's regional final against No. 4 New Hampshire.
Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy expected a battle against Notre Dame (24-13-5), and his Warriors (25-10-4) got all they could handle on Saturday, as the Irish twice battled back from two-goal deficits to force the game into overtime, setting the stage for Lee's heroics.
"We never quit," said Notre Dame's Billy Maday, who scored the game-tying goal in the third period. "We never thought we were out of it at any time of the game."
"The biggest thing is [Merrimack] never got to three" goals ahead, said ND coach Jeff Jackson afterward. "That's the danger mark. It's tough to come back from three."
Merrimack got the jump early, when towering defenseman Kyle Bigos, parked at the edge of the Notre Dame crease, jammed a loose puck past Irish netminder Johnson for a power-play marker at 13:23 of the first.
Ryan Flanigan doubled Merrimack's lead with a shorthanded tally, finishing off a textbook 2-on-1. Breaking in with sophomore Stephane Da Costa, Flanigan took a perfect dish and cranked a shot over Johnson's left shoulder into the top corner at the 16-minute mark. Flanigan's strike marked the sixth straight game -- including five postseason tilts -- that the junior from Rochester, NY, has lit the lamp.
Only 27 seconds later, with Notre Dame still on the power play, Calle Ridderwall got the Irish on the board, firing a wrist shot low underneath Cannata's blocker.
At 2:58 of the second, the Warriors took advantage of a Notre Dame miscue, when Irish defenseman Stephen Johns fanned on a clearing pass. The puck slithered out to Shawn Bates, who relayed a nice touch pass to Rhett Bly in tight. Bly cut to his backhand, opening up Johnson, and the Merrimack freshman calmly tapped it underneath the Irish goaltender for a 3-1 Warrior lead.
However, the Warriors gave one back to the Golden Domers, when Cannata fanned on a fairly routine shot from the top of the left face-off circle. Notre Dame's Lee came barreling down the left side, and fired a shot that Cannata seemed to have line up with his glove. Instead, the puck glanced off Cannata's mitt, off the crossbar and behind him to cut the Merrimack lead to 3-2 at 13:29.
"Anders has done that all year for us," said Jackson. "He's scored some huge goals for us."
Notre Dame climbed all the way back at 5:32 of the third to knot the game at 3-3. ND's Lee, again racing down the left wing, tagged a shot that Cannata kicked straight up the slot. Merrimack's Brendan Ellis hesitated to play it, and Irish forward Maday, crashing the net, poked the puck under Cannata and into the net.
"We knew we had to shot the puck low to get some rebound opportunities," said Maday. "But we also knew we had to get there."
The Irish continued to attack the Warriors, peppering Cannata with shots (and outshooting Merrimack, 17-4 for the period). At 16:52, Notre Dame got a golden opportunity to close it out in regulation, when Merrimack's Bobby Kramer was whistled for cross-checking.
However, Merrimack may have had the best chance during the ensuing power play, when Da Costa narrowly missed on a shorthanded bid, firing the puck just over the crossbar after breaking down his off-wing.
In overtime, the Warriors came out like a squadron of angry wasps, buzzing the Notre Dame zone and forcing Johnson to make several acrobatic saves to keep the Irish in the contest. Merrimack's Mike Collins narrowly missed a backhand shot from a scramble in front, and Jeff Velleca sizzled a shot right off Johnson's mask.
"They came out really hard in OT, and we just had to weather the storm," said Johnson.
"If it wasn't for Mike Johnson, we would be sitting here right now," preparing for the final, said Jackson.
Jackson called a timeout to calm his players down, and Lee did the rest, tallying his second goal of the game to win it for the Irish. It was a bitter end to Merrimack's most successful year as a Div. 1 program.
"It's tough to lose, no matter what," said Merrimack's junior alternate captain Karl Stollery. "It was an unlucky break, but that's what happens in sudden death. It's the game of hockey."
The Irish and Wildcats are set to meet at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Verizon Wireless Arena, with the winner advancing to the Frozen Four.
"They are an exceptional transition team from defense to offense, offense to defense," said Jackson of the Wildcats. "They beat a great Miami team, and that's a great feat in itself. Their goalie (Matt DiGirolamo) is a big part of their success. It'll be a huge challenge for us."
Brion O'Connor covers college hockey for ESPNBoston.com.