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Hockey: Irish to fight for tournament lives in Detroit

Sam Werner | Thursday, March 20, 2008

When No. 12 Notre Dame enters Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena this weekend, it will have the opportunity to defend its Mason Cup title, beginning with tonight’s CCHA semifinal matchup with No. 3 Miami.

But it won’t have the opportunity to do so at full strength.

The Irish will be without junior right wing Erik Condra, their leading scorer who injured his left knee in Sunday’s 2-1 win over Ferris State.

“Any time you lose a player of that caliber, it’s going to impact your team,” coach Jeff Jackson said. “But it’s also an opportunity for other guys to step up in different roles.”

Condra had scored 15 goals and 23 assists this season and had played prominently on Notre Dame’s penalty kill and power play units. Jackson said he had tried several different line combinations to make up for Condra’s loss but wouldn’t make any final decisions until after Thursday’s practice in Detroit.

Notre Dame split the season series with the RedHawks, winning 2-1 and falling 3-1 in Oxford, Ohio, when Miami was the nation’s top team. The RedHawks are led by goalie Jeff Zatkoff, the CCHA leader in save percentage and goals-against average in the regular season. The junior is one of the leading candidates for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the nation’s top hockey player.

“They may be the No. 1 team in the country,” Jackson said. “They’re not ranked No. 1 right now, but they’re right there with the top couple of teams.”

On offense, RedHawks junior Justin Mercier and senior Ryan Jones make up one of the most potent scoring duos in the CCHA. The pair has combined for 85 points on the season.

“[Miami is] so deep, they’re so talented,” Irish senior captain Mark Van Guilder said. “You can’t take a shift off or you’re down 1-0 or 2-0.”

The Irish hope to use their CCHA tournament experience against the RedHawks. The Irish beat Lake Superior State and Michigan last year to hoist the Mason Cup, and Jackson said the players returning from that squad will benefit from winning it all.

“The fact that the guys that were there last year had that experience, I’m sure it’s going to help them,” Jackson said.

This year’s team will be faced with a very different challenge, though. Last year, the Irish were seeded No. 1 in the tournament and were favorites to win the title. This year, Notre Dame is the No. 3 seed and the third-highest seeded team in the final four – ahead of only Northern Michigan, the No. 6 seed. Van Guilder said he thought that being the underdog could actually help the Irish.

“We’re going in there entirely different than last year,” he said. “[Being the top seed] carries with it a lot of pressure and this year there’s not as much pressure.”

On Saturday, the Irish will play in either the CCHA championship game or the consolation game against either Michigan or Northern Michigan. Notre Dame lost both games against Michigan this season, including a 3-2 heartbreaker at Yost Arena on a last-second goal. Against Northern Michigan, the Irish split the season series, winning and losing by scores of 2-1 in Marquette, Mich.

“We’re going to be playing high level teams,” Jackson said. “So we’re going to have a big challenge ahead of us.”

Notre Dame will be playing for more than just the CCHA tournament title this weekend, as the Irish sit squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble. A win this weekend would most likely put them into the field of 16. Jackson, though, said that his team’s focus had to be in Detroit.

“I try to convince our team to quit worrying about that,” Jackson said. “Because I think that’s what got us into trouble in the second half. If we don’t focus on our game against Miami, it’s insignificant what happens next week.”

Van Guilder echoed his coach’s “one game at a time” mentality.

“It sneaks in the back of your mind, but this weekend it’s all about Friday,” he said. “We’re not worried about Saturday. We’re not worried about the NCAA Tournament. We’re not worried about anything but Miami.”