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Hockey: Number One

Kyle Cassily | Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Light up that bright yellow sign on top of Grace Hall, there’s a new No. 1 team on campus.

For the first time in the program’s 39-year history, the Irish hockey team is ranked No. 1 in the country. With the release of the two national polls Monday, the Irish leapfrogged – if just barely – previous leaders New Hampshire and Minnesota after a weekend in which the Irish slid past Bowling Green and got a helping hand out of New England.

“It’s really insignificant at this point,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said of the ranking. “We just have to keep the mindset of focusing on the next game and the next weekend. We can’t allow ourselves to get caught up in those types of things. The only poll that matters is the one that they take at the end of the season.”

Notre Dame (23-5-2) defeated the last-place Falcons on the road 3-2 and 2-1 last weekend, while then-No. 1 New Hampshire fell 4-2 to No. 9 Maine in one of college hockey’s most fierce rivalries, before taking the second game 2-1 over the Black Bears. The New Hampshire loss was enough to bump them down to No. 3 as Minnesota swept Alaska-Anchorage at home to jump to the No. 2 spot. And the then-No. 2 Irish became the third team in three weeks to take over the top spot.

The Irish received 17 first-place votes in the USCHO.com/CSTV poll, while the Gophers earned 12 and the Wildcats took home 11. Only four regular votes separated the Irish (756) from No. 3 New Hampshire (752).

In the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll, Notre Dame earned a little bit more breathing room in the national top five. The Irish grabbed 20 first-place votes to Minnesota’s nine and New Hampshire’s five. The Gophers and Irish are tied for the most wins in college hockey this season with 23.

With the sweep in league play over Bowling Green, the Irish secured a first-round bye in the CCHA playoffs that are set to begin March 2. Notre Dame holds first place in the standings currently with 36 points, while Michigan (32 points) sits in second, Miami (30 points) is in third and Michigan State (28 points) rounds out the top four teams that receive a bye, and home ice, in the second round. With only six games left in the regular season, the Irish cannot be caught by fifth-place Nebraska-Omaha (23 points).

The Irish have been a target for struggling teams capable of pulling off mid-season upsets since they jumped into the rankings Oct. 23 at No. 11 following a 7-1 destruction of then-No. 1 Boston College.

“Our guys are getting more accustomed to dealing with it since everyone plays their A-game against us,” Jackson said. “I think that makes us a better team. It makes our opponents play their best games against us and in turn makes us play our best as well hopefully that will benefit us down the road.”

Notre Dame has never been named the best team in college hockey before, but it has come close several times.

On Jan. 31, 1977, the Irish were voted No. 2 following a two-game sweep of Colorado College on the road. The icers remained at the spot for several more weeks after they beat and tied Minnesota the next weekend. The team fell short from a NCAA Tournament bid that year when it lost to the Gophers in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, preventing the Irish from earning one of the limited four spots in the Tournament.

Several years earlier in 1973, Notre Dame was voted No. 2 in the preseason poll and held the spot for the first two weeks of the season, but ultimately could not hold on and finished the season below .500 and unranked.

The Irish were ranked No. 2 earlier this season when the polls were released Jan. 2, but dropped to No. 5 after a 4-2 loss to Robert Morris Jan. 7.