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Hockey Commentary: Irish winning streak faces true test vs. UM

Matt Gamber | Friday, January 30, 2009

Despite Notre Dame’s win over Michigan in last year’s Frozen Four and the No. 1 national ranking the Irish now boast, there still lingers a sense that the road to CCHA dominance ultimately runs through Ann Arbor.

“It doesn’t matter where they are in the national polls or in the CCHA,” Irish senior center Christian Hanson said. “You know they’re going to bring their ‘A’ game. Year in and year out, they’re one of those teams that’s always in the Frozen Four.”

So if it were possible for the nation’s top-ranked team to have a pair of must-win (or tie) games in the midst of a 20-game unbeaten streak – which it’s not, by the way – this would be that weekend for the Irish.

Notre Dame has topped both national polls for eight straight weeks, but skepticism still exists in the unforgiving world of the online message board. Certain BCS-like formulas rank the Irish behind several teams with less-impressive records, and the general consensus of non-Notre Dame fans on these boards is that the Irish may be the best team in the nation, but they haven’t proved it yet.

The Irish could silence some of those critics by beating No. 7 Michigan – a team Irish coach Jeff Jackson called the “fastest…most potent offensive team in the country.”

But, on the flip side, a disappointing showing, especially at home tonight, could stop Notre Dame’s momentum dead in its tracks.

It’s hard to doubt a team that’s gone three months without a loss, but the Irish have played just two ranked teams during that stretch. Notre Dame’s only impressive road win of the year came at Boston College on Nov. 7. The Golden Eagles were then ranked No. 2 but have since fallen to No. 11 in the polls while sputtering to an 11-8-3 record.

The Irish didn’t allow a goal in a pair of convincing home victories over then-No. 19 Alaska on Jan. 9-10, but the Nanooks have since dropped out of the polls.

That leaves Notre Dame at 1-3 against currently ranked teams heading into a stretch of four straight against top-15 foes, as the Irish travel to No. 14 Ohio State next weekend for a pair of crucial conference games.

Of course, it should be noted that those three losses came in the season-opener at No. 6 Denver on Oct. 11 and in the first two CCHA contests, at home against No. 10 Miami on Nov. 24-25 – the last time the Irish lost. But the losses are still on the books.

Notre Dame is a team far superior to the one it was when it lost those early-season games.

Senior captain Erik Condra has recovered from a knee injury that ended his season a year ago, and he has begun to heat up with points in seven of his last eight games. Hanson has established himself as a powerful offensive force and leads the team with 14 goals and 12 assists.

And the Irish have found a pair of young dynamic scorers in sophomore Calle Ridderwall (10 goals, 13 assists) and freshman Billy Maday (9 goals, 9 assists).

To discredit Notre Dame’s incredible run based on its opponents would be ridiculously unfair. Likewise, to dismiss the Irish if they were to drop a pair against the Wolverines – arguably the nation’s most talented team with the added incentive of getting revenge on the team that ended their season a year ago – would be ridiculous.

That doesn’t mean Irish detractors won’t do it anyway.

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