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Hockey Commentary: Team finally regains early season form with balanced effort in upset wins

Matt Gamber | Monday, March 31, 2008

How did this happen?

Until this weekend, it had been a frustrating couple of months for anyone who followed Notre Dame hockey. After earning a No. 6 national ranking with a 16-4 start, the Irish quickly fell apart, going 8-11-4 after blanking Princeton 7-0 on Dec. 8.

Even so, Notre Dame still got more chances to succeed than it knew what to do with.

The Irish won consecutive games just once in January and February, yet they still finished fourth in the CCHA and got a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

They gave away the first of a three-game playoff set against Ferris State before coming back with wins the next two nights to earn a spot in Detroit for the conference semifinals last weekend, where they thought they needed at least one win to solidify a NCAA berth.

Instead, Notre Dame gave up a game-tying goal to No. 3 Miami (Ohio) with 3.4 seconds to play and lost a heartbreaker in overtime. The next night, the Irish played an admittedly uninspired third-place game, giving up two third-period goals to lose 2-1 to an unheralded Northern Michigan team.

And yet, when the pairings were announced on Easter Sunday, there the Irish were, placed in the West regional as the No. 4 seed – and widely considered an afterthought, expected to continue its steady decline by losing to heavily-favored New Hampshire.

So again, how did this happen?

The truth is, despite the fact that the Irish snuck into the tournament as the last at-large team, they didn’t exactly come out of nowhere.

After last year’s landmark season, capped off with the first CCHA championship and NCAA appearance in school history but cut short with a loss to Michigan State in the regional final, the Irish entered the year a top-10 team, living up to that ranking early on before stumbling around Christmas.

But with their backs to the wall and with just this one last chance (for real this time), the Irish lived up to their early expectations and threw the newer, lower ones right back in their critics’ faces.

Jordan Pearce outplayed a pair of Hobey Baker finalists in net and continued to make a name for himself – how he hadn’t done that already, even after being named the CCHA goalie of the year, is somewhat mind-boggling, because the kid can play and he’s shown it all year.

Captain Mark Van Guilder stepped up, dishing out three assists on Friday before scoring Saturday’s game-winner to garner the region’s most outstanding player award.

Christian Hanson, who had 10 goals all year entering the weekend, scored three times.

The defense was stellar, with hard-hitting Brock Sheahen earning a spot on the all-regional team and freshmen defensemen Ian Cole and Teddy Ruth coming through with clutch goals.

And coach Jeff Jackson showed why he’s widely considered one of the best big-game coaches in college hockey, running his NCAA tournament record to 15-6.

So that’s how it happened, and while top-ranked Michigan surely will provide a tough test, who knows – it just might happen again next weekend.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Matt Gamber at mgamber@nd.edu