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Hockey: Irish at top of sport’s elite teams

Kyle Cassily | Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Only a Brady Quinn pass over Juniper Road away from where one Irish team struggles to win big games, another Notre Dame team has created a cocktail so strong it crushes top opponents flatter than a Tie Domi roundhouse – and it’s on the rocks.

The Irish hockey team – elevated to No. 2 in the country when the polls were released Monday – defeated its sixth ranked team of the year this weekend with a win and tie at home against No. 8 Miami and improved its record to 9-1-1 against the country’s elite.

But the history and tradition-bereft Irish icers haven’t become this season’s ‘Where the hell did they come from?’ storyline on wins alone. They have separated themselves as one of the truly legitimate teams that have the ingredients necessary to make a run for the national title game, with their suffocating defense, well-rounded forward lines and Hobey Baker gem, goalie Dave Brown.

Ever since the Irish dropkicked No.1 Boston College into Boston Harbor with a 7-1 trouncing in their third game of the year, the team has steadily ground up each traditional hockey powerhouse it encountered – both at home and on the road. The only hiccup came in a 2-0 road loss to top-10 Michigan State – hardly a reason to jump ship.

And on Saturday night with an Indiana snowstorm swirling outside the Joyce, the Irish forced last year’s regular season champion RedHawks to glumly wade through post-game chats with family and friends before boarding the bus for what must have been a never-ending drive back to Oxford, Ohio.

The game that night ended in a 2-2 tie and was everything that Friday’s thrilling 4-1 win wasn’t – slow, uninspired and boring – but the fact that it ended in a draw at all is reason enough to throw some money down on the Irish to make it to the Frozen Four in St. Louis.

It just shouldn’t have happened.

Miami played well enough to take advantage of a sloppy Irish turnover for a goal in the first period, and then pressured offensively until right wing Brian Kaufman broke through for the 2-0 lead late in the second period. The Irish were lost well into the third period and couldn’t get anything past goalie Jeff Zatkoff. Even several five-on-three advantages resulted in nothing more than a mad grab for the puck in the Miami zone.

Fifty-three minutes of lackadaisical Irish play muted a Joyce crowd that just the night before had been raucous, and it brought back memories of the 2004-05 season. The electrical buzz of the Coke machine on press row battled the falling snow for noise dominance.

In short, everything about the night was deader than Knute Rockne’s ghost.

Then Irish center Mark Van Guilder redirected a shot from defenseman Wes O’Neill past Zatkoff, and suddenly the Irish thrust a hand through the coffin and began to dig past six feet of dirt. Freshman center Kevin Deeth, who only minutes before had been benched by Irish coach Jeff Jackson for poor play, made amends for a night of missed passes and lost chances, burying a rebound for the tying goal with just over two minutes left to play. The Irish Frankenstein had been zapped back into the world of the living on a stormy winter night.

Nothing about the previous two and a half plus periods would have given any indication that Notre Dame had any shot – or life – to even score one goal, let alone get two and nearly score in the ensuing overtime period. But it did. The Irish clawed out of the grave and won a game they had no business winning, and they have done it all year.

They have routinely won games over veteran teams with hockey traditions thicker than a law textbook.

And the most telling part of it all?

A majority of those ranked teams that fell hard to the Irish have remained firmly entrenched in the national rankings, months of play against the rest of the nation has affirmed that Notre Dame did not benefit from a front-loaded schedule by playing over-hyped teams early. Boston College, Michigan, Michigan State, Miami and Lake Superior State are, barring a major slump, almost all guaranteed a berth in the 16-team NCAA Tournament come March – along with their Irish masters.

Saturday may have been as ugly to the Irish as the mug of Frankenstein’s monster, but the comeback proved that no matter how pretty or nasty Notre Dame plays its opponents, those teams have learned that nothing that emerges from the North Dome is ever safe to poke a stick at – even if it looks dead.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Kyle Cassily at kcassily@nd.edu