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Commentary: Irish must calm nerves to advance

Sam Werner | Thursday, March 24, 2011

Just four weeks ago, Notre Dame stood atop the college hockey world. The Irish were riding an eight-game unbeaten streak into the season finale against Western Michigan. A win against the Broncos — who they had beaten 3-2 on the road the night before — would have given Notre Dame the CCHA regular season title.

Instead, Western Michigan scored twice in the first 11:20 of the game and the Irish couldn’t recover, falling 2-0 and ceding the CCHA crown to rival Michigan.

Last weekend, Notre Dame headed to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for the CCHA Championship. After a comfortable 4-2 win over Lake Superior State in the do-or-die third game of their second round playoff series, the Irish seemed poised to make some noise in the Motor City.

Instead, the trip ended with a thorough 6-2 beating at the hands of Miami (Ohio) in the semifinals and a 4-2 loss to the Wolverines in the third-place game. Against the RedHawks, Notre Dame once again could not recover from an abysmal opening period, falling behind 4-0 before the first intermission.

“We didn’t have as much fun,” senior right wing Ryan Guentzel said. “I think the big building kind of got to us Friday night, dug us a big hole and we couldn’t get out of it.”

It’s understandable that a team as young as Notre Dame — with 12 freshmen on the roster — might experience some stage fright in their first game playing for a trophy, or their first game in a 20,000-seat NHL arena. Now that it’s NCAA tournament time, though, it’s time for the Irish to grow up fast.

No matter how many high school or junior playoff games a player has experienced, there’s nothing quite like postseason NCAA hockey. After the past month, the freshmen have seen collegiate playoff hockey with their own eyes. Even if it was not necessarily positive, the younger players have experience — albeit limited — to draw on now if they face adversity against Merrimack or beyond.

The Irish have plenty of reasons to be confident heading into the NCAA tournament. This team has been ranked in the top-10 all season for a reason, and they need to remember that when they arrive in Manchester this weekend.

If the Irish weren’t a good team they would not have beaten defending national champion Boston College earlier in the season, nor would they boast wins at both Michigan and Miami.

There are plenty reasons Notre Dame may not advance past this weekend — or even past Saturday night — but nerves should not be one of them. It’s up to senior captains Joe Lavin, Calle Ridderwall, Ben Ryan and Ryan Guentzel to keep the team calm and not let the big-game jitters get to them. There’s no better group of players to do it, either. Ridderwall, Ryan and Guentzel advanced to the Frozen Four as freshmen three years ago. Interestingly, that team also lost both games in Detroit before making its run to the championship game.

Notre Dame has thrived all season on its loose atmosphere in the locker room. Older players have noted that the influx of freshmen have created a more carefree vibe around the program. When the team apparently stopped having fun off the ice — against Western Michigan and Miami — the Irish struggled on the ice.

I’m not going to pretend I know what the Irish need to do to keep it loose in Manchester. Maybe it’s playing certain music in the locker room, playing practical jokes on one another or just remembering that college hockey is, at its roots, a  whole lot of fun. Whatever Notre Dame needs to do to have fun on this trip, that will be the key to advancing to Saint Paul and the program’s second Frozen Four.

This year’s team has set the Irish hockey program up nicely for the future. There’s no doubt that players on the roster now will someday raise some banners in the soon-to-be-ready Compton Center. Just because T.J. Tynan, Anders Lee and the other Irish freshmen have a bright future, though, doesn’t mean that winning can’t start now.


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