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Hockey: The puck drops here

Dan Murphy | Friday, March 23, 2007

No. 1 Notre Dame will attempt to make history once again tonight by winning their first-ever NCAA Tournament game. The Irish face off with College Hockey America champion Alabama-Huntsville at 5 p.m. in the first round of the regional in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The Irish have made only one appearance in the tournament in their 37-year history. Three years ago they lost 5-2 to No. 1 seed Minnesota in the opening round.

“We’re just focused on going up there and making a step in Notre Dame history – winning a game in the NCAA Tournament,” senior defenseman Wes O’Neill said.

The Irish are heavily favored in the contest, but Alabama-Huntsville brings a boatload of motivation and momentum into the regional with them. The Chargers arrived in Grand Rapids after they went on a Cinderella run through the CHA tournament, twice coming from behind to knock off higher seeds along the way. Their most impressive victory came in the championship game when they erased a 4-0 deficit to defeat Robert Morris 5-4 in overtime.

“They never quit. That’s the way [Alabama-Huntsville coach] Doug Ross is – he’s retiring, his kids are all motivated,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “They’re going to play right to the final buzzer regardless of the score.”

Ross’ retirement has certainly been an added source of motivation for the Chargers. The coach, who played his college hockey at Lake Superior State, has been behind the bench for Alabama-Huntsville for the past 25 years.

Ross has won two Division II national championships with the Chargers, but, like the Irish, he is still looking for his first victory in the Division I tournament.

On the ice, the Chargers are led by their top scoring line of seniors Brett McConnachie, Grant Selinger and David Nimmo. Nimmo, the center, leads the team in scoring with 35 points, while his two linemates are close behind in second and third.

Alabama-Huntsville plays a loose, offensive-minded style of hockey similar to what Notre Dame saw against Michigan in the CCHA finals last Saturday.

“We just have to do what we do,” O’Neill said. “We shut down a pretty good offensive team in Michigan, limiting them to one goal. We just have to do the same thing against these guys.”

With the top defense in the country, Notre Dame has shut down potent scorers all postseason, but the Irish backliners have also contributed on the offensive end. O’Neill, who failed to score during the regular season, has netted three goals in the playoffs.

“We just have to pick our spots and jump in when we get the opportunities,” he said.

If Notre Dame makes it past Huntsville tonight, it will play again Saturday against the winner of Michigan State and Boston University for a chance to move to the Frozen Four.

Both the Spartans and Terriers play a defensive style of hockey, similar to the Irish.

“There is a big difference between the styles of play,” Jackson said. “All I know is that both teams are very capable of being in the Frozen Four.”

Boston University goaltender John Curry and the Spartans’ Jeff Lerg both have been terrific in net all season. Curry is currently ranked third in the country in goals-against average at 1.92. Only Notre Dame’s Dave Brown and Vermont’s Joe Fallon have done better this year.

Saturday’s game starts at 8:30 p.m., and all of this weekend’s games can be seen on ESPNU.