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Hockey Commentary: Playoff pressure

Allan Joseph | Thursday, March 10, 2011

Less than a month ago, I was supremely confident this Irish team would win the regular-season CCHA title, storm through the league playoffs and claim another trophy in Joe Louis Arena — making a serious run at another Frozen Four appearance. Coming into this weekend’s playoff-opening series against Lake Superior State, however, I have no idea what to expect.

Notre Dame’s a freshman-laden team, which usually means there will be some growing pains. Freshmen are expected to tighten up on the big stage and on the road in places like North Dakota’s Ralph Engelstad Arena (capacity 11,640), Michigan’s Yost Ice Arena (capacity 6,637) and Miami (Ohio)’s Steve Cady Arena (capacity 4,000). This team struggled a couple times in those places, to be sure, but in those six intimidating away games, they went 2-3-1. That’s a pretty good performance for a team full of young guys.

They were loose and care free all season long, oblivious to the pressures of playing with a top-10 ranking and the CCHA lead. They had no memory of the disappointment of last season, and a core group of seniors in Joe Lavin, Calle Ridderwall, Ryan Guentzel and Ben Ryan guided the team to the brink of a conference title. With only one regular-season game remaining and a one-point lead over Michigan (playing on the same day), the Irish simply had to win once more against a Western Michigan team they had already beaten twice to earn the crown. It was the final regular-season game in Joyce Center history, and a vocal crowd was on hand to witness what should have been a title celebration.

Instead of a celebration, however, the fans were left only with disappointment as Notre Dame came out flat and dropped a 2-0 decision to the Broncos. Michigan’s 5-0 victory gave the Wolverines the regular-season crown and the top seed in the playoffs.

The Irish can only hope that game was an aberration. Irish coach Jeff Jackson said his team got caught looking ahead to the playoffs. I want to believe him, and I think I do.

There’s just this sinking feeling.

Playing at home in front of a sellout crowd in the Joyce Center’s last game for a title, and the Irish get caught looking ahead? To what?

In any case, going down 2-0 in the first period should have been enough of a wake-up call. Is Notre Dame going to drop the ball again this weekend because they were looking ahead to Detroit? If they lose the first game of the series, are they going to be able to come back and win two in a row?

These questions won’t stop bothering me. I hope the freshmen aren’t starting to feel the heat. This team has played too well for too long for this season to come to a quick end. Yet, if the young guys don’t focus on the playoff games at hand, that’s just what could happen. If the problem is focus, it’s fixable. If the problem is pressure, it might not be.

I’m still an optimist about this Notre Dame team. With a really solid group of leaders and arguably the best coach in the country behind the bench, they could certainly make a run to the Frozen Four. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.

It’s hard for me to believe the Irish only lost because they didn’t focus against Western Michigan. I just hope I’m wrong.

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

Contact Allan Joseph at ajoseph2@nd.edu