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Irish stay below radar

Justin Schuver | Thursday, January 22, 2004

There’s no doubt about it. Notre Dame is a football school first and foremost. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. Over a century of Heisman Trophy winners, a history of some of the top coaches in college football history and more national championships than any other school is certainly reason enough to put football at the pinnacle of the Irish athletic totem pole.Perhaps it’s better that the Irish hockey team isn’t on the national radar like their football counterparts. The media has to know what Tyrone Willingham eats for breakfast every day, while hockey coach Dave Poulin can go shopping at Martin’s on the weekends in relative anonymity.True, the Irish currently only sit in seventh-place in the CCHA, with 18 points in 16 games. Their 8-6-2 conference record and 12-7-3 records overall are good, yet not great. But despite what looks like mediocrity, the Irish have been anything but. Quick, name three members of the Notre Dame hockey team. Can’t do it? Well, don’t worry, fans in Chestnut Hill, Mass., Orono, Maine and Madison, Wisc. probably couldn’t either.They should be able to now, though, as the Irish have already beaten hockey powerhouses Boston College, Maine and Wisconsin this season. Each team was ranked in the top five at the time, and each win came on the road, with two of those three wins ending in shutouts.Not bad for a team that wasn’t even picked to finish in the top six in their conference’s preseason poll. Despite playing in the Joyce Center, an arena better suited to host Senior Citizens’ Bingo Night than a hockey game, the Irish have quietly crept up on the rest of the CCHA elite over the past few years.Notre Dame has advanced to the Super Six three of the past four years, twice beating higher-ranked opponents on the road in the first round to do so. True, the Irish have never won a game at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit during the CCHA Championships, but they have still made the rest of the conference take notice that they are no longer a pushover.Despite having to compete with powerhouses like Michigan and Michigan State for recruits, the Irish have continued to put together competitive squads year after year, and this year hit paydirt with one of their best freshman classes ever. Goaltender David Brown and defenseman Wes O’Neill are both listed among the top three collegians at their position in the NHL Central Scouting List for the 2004 NHL Draft. And a whole slew of freshman forwards – Michael Bartlett, Jason Paige and Josh Sciba among them – have come through with pivotal goals at pivotal times for the Irish this year.Despite a tradition of goaltending mediocrity (the school’s record holder in save percentage is an anemic .888), Notre Dame has put together one of the best tandems in the country, which is a big reason for their great start this year.Brown and junior Morgan Cey are each in the top three overall for both save percentage and goals against average in the CCHA, and Brown is tied for the lead in shutouts with four. Brown and Cey continue to compete with each other for starts, and that can only be a good thing for the Irish down the stretch.No matter what happens the rest of the season, the Irish have made believers out of college hockey fans nationwide, from Massachusetts to Florida (where the Irish beat then-No. 3 Maine in a Christmas tournament). No longer can teams simply schedule Notre Dame in hopes of getting an easy win.Despite all the odds this season, the Irish time and time again have shown they can win over all.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not represent those of the Observer. Contact Justin Schuver at jschuver@nd.edu.