April 8, 2008 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Frozen Four Preview: Notre Dame

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Notre Dame could not have been any closer to falling off the cliff without going over. A sub.-500 second half of the season followed what was a 16-4 start. The team barely won its quarterfinal playoff series, limped into The Joe, where it promptly lost two games — including a 2-1 OT loss to Miami in the semis, when the RedHawks tied it in the closing seconds.

Somehow, things broke right for the Irish everywhere else, and they qualified for the NCAAs. Last year, the Irish were a No. 1 seed, only to be taken to double overtime by Alabama-Huntsville, then, out of gas, lose to Michigan State in the regional final.

So the prospects this year looked dim. But that's when Notre Dame turned things around on a dime, summoning the will, and a new-found scoring touch, to defeat New Hampshire in the West Regional. That was followed by knocking off the defending champ Spartans, and leaving people to call Notre Dame "this year's Michigan State."

Now we'll see if the Irish can actually follow up that monicker by doing what MSU did last year, pull off two more "upsets" — starting with Thursday's semifinal against No. 1 Michigan — and win the whole thing.

"Going into the regional tournament, only in our locker room were the expectations high," said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. "I give our players a lot of credit for being able to respond to different adversities."

One of those adversities was losing leading scorer Erik Condra. That would have seemed to be the death blow for a team that was having trouble scoring as it was, particularly on the power play. At one point during the season, the Irish were 0-for-42 on the PP.

"Going into Christmas break, we had nine players that were in double digits in scoring," Jackson said. "A number of our players lost some confidence.

"Confidence is a tricky thing. ... It became a collective thing that went across our whole team. ... The one positive thing for me was that through the whole process, we didn't lose sight of playing well in our own end. Throughout that process, we could have broken down and started cheating, but we were respectful of the defensive end of the ice. And in the process, we've been able to take our offensive game from our defensive game in transition."

The resurgent scoring comes from guys like sophomore Ryan Thang, who leads the team with 17 goals, including five game winners. Junior Christian Hanson has 13 goals, and freshman Ben Ryan adds 10-16—26. Then there's senior Mark Van Guilder, who has been a spiritual leader as well as top scorer, with 12 goals and 29 points.

"Last year, it seemed like we cruised through the season. Nothing really went wrong, and I don't think we realized how lucky we were to be in the NCAA tournament," Van Guilder said. "I think it clicked this year — we realized how big a deal it is, how lucky we were to be there. It was nice to get a second chance. We knew we had a good team; we've shown flashes, but we've been confident all year with what we've got in the locker room. We wanted to take advantage of the opportunity this year."

Of course, this is old hat to Jeff Jackson. It was 20 years ago that he was an assistant on Lake Superior State's first national championship team, which defeated St. Lawrence in Lake Placid. Jackson went on to win two national championships of his own as head coach, nearly won another if not for Jim Montgomery's third-period heroics for Maine in 1993, and went to the regional finals in 1996 before leaving college hockey for a decade.

On the other hand, in his third year in South Bend, these are new experiences for the school with the golden dome.

"It's a great time for our program. When we first started putting this all together three years ago, our expectations were to build a program that could compete for a championship," Jackson said. "The nature of the players here accelerated that process. I thought it would take five years to get to this point."

Van Guilder thought so too.

"I've been asked a couple times, 'Did you ever think this was possible your freshman year?'" Van Guilder said. "After winning five games [my freshman year], I just wanted to start winning some hockey games. The Frozen Four was the farthest thing from our mind. When JJ arrived, confidence arrived with him."

Confidence is important, but the Frozen Four with add an entirely different level of drama for the Irish, one they haven't had before.

"The biggest thing is, we've tried to prepare our team for this over the last two years," Jackson said. "It's one of the reason we started the (holiday) tournament down in Tampa Bay. We played at Joe Louis Arena. And let's face facts, there's probably no (more difficult) crowd than playing at Yost arena. We've tried to get our team to play in these types of events, in front of these kinds of crowds, to prepare our team for this.

"We want it to be a positive nervousness, not a nervousness that creates mistakes. As we approach this event, I think our guys have been very well focused. The big key is to be able to play 60 minutes and focus on what we have to. It's not about thinking about a national championship. It's about thinking about playing the No. 1 team in the country and trying to have a success."

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