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Irish prepare to face defending-champion Minnesota

Justin Schuver | Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Talk about your baptisms by fire.No. 4 seed Notre Dame (20-14-4) will face No. 1 seed Minnesota (26-13-3) in the first round of the NCAA Midwest Regional Saturday at noon in Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. The Golden Gophers are two-time defending national champions and are making their NCAA-leading 28th appearance in the tournament.This is Notre Dame’s first appearance.”What better way to start,” Irish coach Dave Poulin said. “What better way to earn your first berth than by playing the two-time defending national champion? I talked a lot to [Irish baseball] coach [Paul] Manieri about the first time they went to the College World Series and how they had to go through Florida State, who was No. 1 at the time, to get to that point.”He talked a lot about the respect they earned doing [it] that way, so as I see it there’s no better way to go right into this thing. We’d have to get through Minnesota at some point, so why not just do it here in the first game.”Notre Dame earned its first NCAA tournament bid by virtue of a difficult non-conference schedule that included wins over then-No. 1 Boston College, then-No. 3 Maine and then-No. 4 Wisconsin – Maine and Boston College are No. 1 seeds in other regionals this year. Poulin sees nothing different in his team’s next opponent.”When we are conscious of it, and we play on the defensive side and play smart, we can really play with anybody in the country,” he said. “I think we’ve definitely proven that this year.”This weekend’s matchup is a reunion for two former Notre Dame teammates. Poulin and Minnesota coach Don Lucia were teammates on the Irish from 1978-81, playing under head coach Lefty Smith. Poulin, a forward, scored 196 points in his 135-game career and Lucia, a defenseman, scored 30 points in 124 games.”It’s pretty neat for Lefty Smith to have two former players coaching against each other in the NCAA’s,” Poulin said. “Donny and I have kept in touch over the years and obviously he’s done a wonderful job in Minnesota.”Notre Dame’s last game was a 6-5 loss in overtime to Ohio State March 18 in the first round of the CCHA’s Super Six Championship. Senior forwards Aaron Gill and Rob Globke each had four-point nights in the loss, with Gill scoring three goals and one assist and Globke chipping in one goal and three assists.”I think they have been and will be the leaders of this tournament,” Poulin said. “We need other people obviously to help out, but those two wanted to be and have been the leaders for us all season. “Obviously we fell a little short, but now we have a new goal ahead of us.”Minnesota is coming off the Western Collegiate Hockey Association championship, defeating Minnesota-Duluth 7-4 in the semifinals and North Dakota 5-4 in the championship game.Lucia’s roster is laden with talent. Minnesota boasts two of the best players in college hockey in forward Thomas Vanek and defenseman Keith Ballard, who are both nominees for this year’s Hobey Baker award.The Golden Gophers have five players with 30 or more points, with Vanek and forward Troy Riddle leading the team with 48 points each. Vanek also leads the team with 24 goals.Minnesota is led in net by freshman Kellen Briggs, who has a 2.63 goals-against average and a .895 save percentage while compiling a 24-10-3 record. Briggs has four shutouts this season.The winner of Saturday’s game will go on to face the winner of the game between No. 2 seed Minnesota-Duluth and No. 3 seed Michigan State. That game will be played at 1 p.m. Sunday. The winner of that game then advances to the Frozen Four in Boston April 8-10.