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Werner: Young Irish must seize the moment (Apr. 7)

Sam Werner | Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Three years ago, I was lucky enough to cover the 2008 Frozen Four in Denver. I was just a lowly freshman sports writer, in awe that The Observer would actually pay for me to go to an awesome city and watch hockey.

By now, every Notre Dame hockey fan knows how that weekend played out. In the national semifinal, the Irish beat Michigan 5-4 in overtime to earn — at least prior to this weekend — the biggest win in the program’s history. Two nights later in the championship game, Notre Dame came up short against Nathan Gerbe and Boston College, falling 4-1.

Even though the Irish came up short, I — along with the entire Irish fan base — was hopeful for the future of the program. Given its trajectory, I was fully preparing to cover the team in Washington, D.C. in the 2009 Frozen Four.

Despite a record-setting 2009 regular season and CCHA tournament championship, the No. 1-seeded Irish fell to Bemidji State in the first round of the tournament. The months of hard work and success were wiped away in a game that Notre Dame may well have won nine out of 10 times.

The next season was basically a four-month long version of the Bemidji State game. The Irish roster was loaded with talent, but for whatever reason, the team never clicked, and the season ended with a losing record and a first-round CCHA tournament loss to Ohio State.

The past two seasons have been living proof of something that many, including myself, lost sight of in the optimism following the 2008 playoff run: It’s really, really difficult to make it to the Frozen Four.

Even for the biggest and most storied programs, the Frozen Four should not be an annual expectation. Denver, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Boston University and Boston College — along with their 27 combined national championships — will be watching this weekend’s games from home.

Notre Dame learned in 2009 and 2010 that anything from a fluke loss to unexplained intangibles can submarine a potential championship run.

It’s this uncertainty that makes this weekend all the more important for Notre Dame. Sure, with all the youth on the roster, the program will certainly have championship-caliber talent for the foreseeable future. But, as the past two years have shown, you just never know. Notre Dame is two wins away from its first national championship, and the Irish need to seize the moment now.

Much has been made of the fact that Notre Dame has made this run to the Frozen Four with 12 freshmen on the roster. Rookies T.J. Tynan and Anders Lee — who will probably need more closet space after all the hardware they picked up at Sunday’s team awards banquet — are already among the top players in college hockey. Whether or not the Irish “should” be playing in Saint Paul this weekend or not, the fact is they are, and there’s no excuse not to take advantage.

Fortunately for the Irish, the upperclassmen are in a unique position to offer advice to all the freshmen. Seniors Ben Ryan, Calle Ridderwall and Ryan Guentzel were all freshmen in Denver three years ago. They know that the younger players cannot afford to assume that there are definitely more Frozen Fours to come.

There were times even this season when it looked like a return to college hockey’s biggest stage just wasn’t in the cards. In my prediction for the first two rounds, I said the team appeared to be “one year away.”

This team showed in the regional in Manchester, N.H. two weeks ago that they are definitely not one year away. Winning on back-to-back days in virtual road games against local teams Merrimack and New Hampshire, the Irish proved they clearly have the talent, chemistry and attitude to win it all this year. Once you get down to four teams, it’s just a matter of how the puck bounces.

Throughout my four years at The Observer, I’ve watched football games from the Notre Dame Stadium press box, been on the field at Yankee Stadium and seen an Irish bowl win in person. For some reason, though, whenever anyone asks me what my favorite event I’ve covered was, the answer is always that Frozen Four three years ago. With smart coaching, a few timely plays and maybe one or two lucky bounces, this weekend has the chance to be even better.

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