Irish open NCAA tournament against Minnesota
Tobias Hoonhout | Friday, March 24, 2017
After falling to UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals last Friday, the Irish earned an at-large bid as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and were placed in the Northeast Regional.
First up in their quest for the first national championship in program history? No. 1 seed Minnesota. While last weekend’s loss may cause some worry, Irish head coach Jeff Jackson is confident in his team’s ability to bounce back, as it has all year.
“This team has always had a pretty good ability to bounce back, anytime we’ve lost a tough game we usually come back with a good performance,” Jackson said. “ … It goes with the leadership; it goes with the maturity of our team as far as growing up. They’ve become stronger as a group.
“I think that really showed up in the second half this year, when we started to get tougher, we put together some wins, we didn’t have a lot of losses at home, we would at least get a tie at home and a win, and that Providence series to me was a really good example of our ability to show that mental toughness and win two games in a row. And that’s what we’re going to have to have this weekend.”
The opening round matchup is not a new experience for either team, as Notre Dame (21-11-5, 12-6-4 Hockey East) has played the Golden Gophers (23-11-3, 14-5-1 Big Ten) for six straight seasons now. But despite the familiarity, Jackson holds significant respect for Minnesota’s talent, highlighted by Notre Dame’s 3-5-0 record over the past eight games against the Golden Gophers.
“The last three classes have played against them, they have an idea of how they play and they play a good game,” Jackson said. “They’re a talented team and they play the game the right way. They do good things on offense, in transition; they’ve got a good power play; they’re a good offensive team, one of the best in the country.”
Like the Irish, the Gophers struggled to find consistency in the first half of the season, but enjoyed a stronger second half, in large part due to what Jackson thinks is consistent play from Minnesota sophomore goalie Eric Schierhorn.
“Their top two lines are highly skilled, they have really good offensive abilities on transition and in the offensive zone,” Jackson said. “I think the biggest thing for them was the first half they had inconsistency in goal, and I think Schierhorn has really taken a big step in the second half, which is all they really needed. They’ve always had good depth on defense and they always had that skill and ability up front, and then getting that constant goaltending in the second half is really when they started to take off and they had a really good second half, as did we.”
While Notre Dame has made the NCAA tournament field four of the last five years — it had a first round bow out to Michigan last season — the Irish have not reached the Frozen Four since 2011. But for Jackson and the team, the valuable experiences learned in those struggles will hopefully translate to success this year, starting Saturday.
“Well, you hope that the experience they have had helps them — last year playing in Cincinnati, we played one of our better games of the year,” Jackson said. “Unfortunately, we lost in overtime against a very talented Michigan team. So, you hope that that experience, the experience in the Boston Garden last weekend, you hope each one of those situations helps. You hope that playing in those types of environments, playing in those those types of pressured situations helps them. The more they do it the better they can get at it.
“ … When you get to this time of year there are a lot of factors involved, and you have to get things to go your way, and that really hasn’t happened for us … in a couple of those regional games, it’s not like we played poorly; it’s a matter of scoring that big goal when you need it like [former Irish center] Anders Lee did [against Merrimack in overtime] in that Regional four years ago.”
The puck drops between the Irish and the Golden Gophers at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at SNHU Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire.