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March 30, 2008 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Underdog Notre Dame Rise From Ashes to Reach First Frozen Four

by Cole Weinman/CHN Reporter

The West Regional did not disappoint this year, and neither did Notre Dame.

On paper, Notre Dame was an underdog and a big underdog at that against the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday night. Of course, no moreso than the bigger underdog it was against New Hampshire the night before.

But the Irish were strong of heart and true to their name; the Irish battled, scrapped, and fought for every inch of the Olympic sheet of ice at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, and they emerged victorious.

With the victory, Notre Dame will advance to the Frozen Four; just days ago, they were praying for their tournament lives.

The Golden Domers once again were the dogs in this matchup, but every dog has their day, and Saturday was as good a day as any for the Irish.

The win avenged last year's loss in the regional final to Michigan State, where Notre Dame had come in as the top seed. Last year, the Irish, long believed to be a sleeping giant, finally seemed to be establishing something with distinguished coach Jeff Jackson at the helm. This year had hoped to be another step, but ironically, the last two months of the season, the team fizzled hard. As recently as last week, the Irish looked dead, and they just barely snuck into the tournament.

Jackson said after Friday's game that this was a team hoping to establish tradition. The first Frozen Four appearance in program history is a good way to start.

"My belief is Notre Dame can have that same storied tradition in hockey. It'll always be a football school, but so are Michigan and Minnesota, and Wisconsin. They're football schools, but they play hockey. I think we're moving in that direction," said Jackson, who won two national championships as head coach of Lake Superior State (1992, 1994). "It's an exciting time. I always thought it was a diamond in the rough. We're still in the process of building it. It takes a long time, more than two or three years."

A BOLD PREDICTION?

After the victory over Colorado College, Michigan State Goaltender Jeff Lerg said, "We know when we lost to Maine the previous year (in the 2006 NCAAs); we got a chance to replay them and ended up on top, so we know how Notre Dame is feeling this year."

Michigan State beat Notre Dame in last year's regional finals, as Michigan State marched their way to the national title.

Notre Dame was able to put three goals past the all-regional goalie Lerg.

"We know what it's like to be on the winning side, and now we know what it's like to be on the losing side," said Lerg.

STEALING THE SHOW

While all eyes were on Lerg and his NCAA tournament resume, a quiet, humble goaltender subtly stole the show at the West Regionals. Notre Dame standout Jordan Pearce firmly placed himself among the elite goaltenders in the Frozen Four.

Pearce was stellar last weekend in the CCHA tournament, only to lose 2-1 in overtime to Miami when the RedHawks tied it in the waning seconds of regulation.

"It feels good. I didn't really worry about it too much. I just have to worry about my own game and playing my game," Pearce said. "Numbers are numbers; you get out of it what you put into it. I just wanted to get some wins for our boys. In the second half (of the season) we didn't get some bounces, it just feels good to get a few wins and play well in front of my team. It's the least I can do for them."

Pearce's coach gave his goaltender a glowing review.

"I've thought Jordan over the last two years worked extremely hard, didn't complain, he had the ability, he had the athleticism," Jackson said. "And people should realize too this kid was sick all week, he had the flu and didn't practice till Friday. He made great strides, and I think that was because of his attitude, he stuck it out."

MAKING HISTORY

Since the tournament shifted to 16 teams in 2003, Notre Dame's triumph marks the first time a No. 4 seed has progressed to Frozen Four.

The victory also secures the first Frozen Four berth for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. They will meet another Michigan rival in semifinal round, the Michigan Wolverines.

"Obviously we're thrilled, it's a step forward from last year," Jackson said. "It's part of the process of building a big program. They stayed strong as a group and it gives us an opportunity to play in the Frozen Four for the first time in Notre dame history."

When asked about the Frozen Four, and the upcoming game against Michigan, regional Most Outstanding Player Mark Van Guilder said, "They are a heck of a team. We're going to have to do a good job slowing down their forwards.

"Pretty much every team here has more playoff experience than us. It's going to come down to who plays better each night."

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