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Commentary: Back in the semis, but this isn’t like last year

Sam Werner | Friday, March 20, 2009

Technically, Notre Dame is in the same spot – the CCHA semifinals – as it was a year ago.

But the Irish could hardly be in a more different situation this time around.

A year ago, Notre Dame was limping into Joe Louis Arena after a tough three-game series against Ferris State. The Irish were the lowest seed left heading into their semifinal game against Miami (Ohio), and their NCAA Tournament lives were hanging by a thread. In its last 18 games last year, Notre Dame struggled to a 6-8-4 record.

“Last year we just kind of squeaked by Ferris State,” Irish senior center Christian Hanson said. “We were kind of the underdog going in there.”

The Irish lost to the RedHawks in a heartbreaking overtime loss after giving up a goal with just under four seconds left in regulation.


Notre Dame is the No. 1 team in the country, and the Irish have had the CCHA’s top seed wrapped up for a month. It’s safe to say that no one would be surprised to see Jeff Jackson and company lifting the Mason Cup on Saturday night.

“This year, we’re coming in with all the momentum, and I think the target’s really going to be on our back,” Hanson said.

“Momentum” is an understatement. The Irish have lost only two games since November, and netminder Jordan Pearce has given up only one goal in the past five games.

The most important position for any playoff run is between the pipes, and Jordan Pearce said that he feels more prepared for this year’s trip to Joe Louis.

“I would say having the experience of being there and knowing what the whole weekend is about, I think I’ll be a little bit more prepared this time to not let the distractions get to me,” he said.

He also admitted, though, that it’s easier to play the role of underdog, as the Irish did last year.

“It’s kind of tough because the expectations are for you to win,” Pearce said. “It’s easier to play as underdogs because you’ve got nothing to lose.”

The Irish won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this year. Notre Dame played well against Miami last year, no doubt, but the Wildcats will have extra motivation tomorrow that Miami didn’t have last year. If Northern Michigan can knock off the Irish, it would be the highlight of their season The RedHawks’ win was just a stepping-stone on the way to loftier goals.

Notre Dame certainly has the right man at the helm to deal with the target on their backs. In his ten years coaching in the CCHA – six with Lake Superior State and four with Notre Dame – Jackson has only missed out on a trip to Detroit once, his first year with Notre Dame.

The reason the Irish will be able to overcome Northern Michigan’s upset aspirations is Jackson’s even keel.

“How he approaches things is the same from week to week, which is good because if you don’t, you get out of whack – you get too high, you get too low – but he’s been very consistent,” assistant coach Paul Pooley said before the team’s trip to Denver for last year’s Frozen Four.

That steadiness paid dividends during last year’s run to the National Championship game, and it will again in Detroit this weekend in an event that Jackson said was just as hard to win as the NCAA championship.

“In hockey, it’s a big deal to go to Detroit and play at the CCHA championships,” he said. “Our conference championships have a lot of meaning.”

It’s that approach, as well as a heavy dose of consistency, that are the reason Notre Dame is favored to claim the CCHA Championship this weekend.

A big difference from one year ago.

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

Contact Sam Werner at swerner@nd.edu