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Hockey: Great Expectations

Kyle Cassily | Friday, October 12, 2007

The No. 8 Irish will have a bit more speed on offense with the addition of some European power and creativity when they face No. 15 Wisconsin tonight in the season opener.

Four new freshmen will make their offensive debut in the first game of the Lefty McFadden Invitational in Dayton, Ohio – including two rookies who hail from Stockholm, Sweden. Robin Bergman and Calle Ridderwall, two of the fastest players in the junior United States Hockey League last season, have joined an offensive unit that kept nearly all of its talent from last season.

“I think we’ll be faster,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “I don’t want to get too far from being a good puck-possession team. Sometimes highly-skilled players try to make risky plays. We need to be creative, but we also need to be responsible. That will take a little time to make sure everybody understands that.”

Notre Dame’s first appearance in the Invitational and the 62nd overall meeting with the Badgers tonight will be the first game the Irish have played since they were knocked out of the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament by eventual-champion Michigan State in April. The Irish were ranked No. 1 at the time and had held the top spot for over two months, during which they captured their first league regular season and playoff championships.

“Sitting there watching Michigan State win the championship had a lot to do with our work ethic this summer,” captain and center Mark Van Guilder said. “We were thinking about that all summer.”

On offense, Notre Dame should be even better this season than they were a year ago.

Freshman forwards Ben Ryan, a fourth-round draft pick in the NHL Draft last June and Ryan Guentzel add punch behind the goal-producing “little guy” line of junior alternate captain Erik Condra and sophomores Ryan Thang and Kevin Deeth. Ridderwall was showcased on the top power play unit in Wednesday’s Blue-Gold game with the little guy line and defenseman Kyle Lawson, where he could become a speedy fixture to a unit that converted 18.6 percent of its chances.

“We’ve got a lot of talent,” Van Guilder said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of creativity offensively. So hopefully that translates into some more scoring.”

Not that the Irish underperformed in 2006-07.

Program milestones came in Jackson’s second year behind the Irish bench and only two years removed from a five-win season that resulted in the resignation of former coach Dave Poulin. Jackson, who won two national championships as head coach of Lake Superior State in the early 1990s, accepted the job at Notre Dame for a chance to rebuild a program.

The turnaround of the program has not been contained to the ice. A $15 million anonymous donation toward a new arena was announced on Sept. 12, raising the total budget for the new rink upward of $25 million.

It will be difficult for the Irish to replicate last season’s success because the team lost eight seniors to graduation, including Hobey Baker finalist goaltender Dave Brown. Eight freshmen have filled their spots, and Jackson said it will take time for the new players to learn the systems up to the team’s standard.

“I know every game is important in the NCAA,” Jackson said. “But we also have to do a good job of coming out of these next four non-conference games having a good feel for areas that we need to improve, our line combinations, our defensive pairs, our goaltending.”

The Irish could open the season by playing four straight ranked teams in those non-conference games if they play No. 19 Ohio State in the second game of the McFadden Invitational. Next week, No. 13 Denver will travel to South Bend for a two-game series in the Joyce Center.

“We’re going to find out where we’re at,” Jackson said. “With so many young guys, it’s going to be an experience under fire. I just want to get through these four games in decent shape. I don’t want to fall on our faces. But with the opponents we’re playing, anything’s possible.”

But Wisconsin, which made a second half revival last season after a lackluster start, presents the immediate threat to the Irish. The Badgers add a freshman recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the nation. Notre Dame’s class was ranked fourth by Inside College Hockey and had one first round draft pick in defenseman Ian Cole (No. 18 overall).

“I know [Badgers coach] Mike Eaves, and I know some of the talent they have coming in there,” Jackson said. “As good a class as we had, they may have a better freshman class. If you look at NHL draft status, they have three first-rounders.”

Jackson said junior Jordan Pearce will start in net against Wisconsin, but Jackson is still unsure if Pearce will play Saturday. Sophomore Tom O’Brien and freshman Brad Phillips are the alternatives. All three goaltenders are battling to replace Brown.

“You’ve got to try your all because there’s people right in your rearview mirror trying to take over your spot,” Pearce said of the three-way competition. “So it makes you work even harder than you would if you knew you had a job.”