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Hockey: It’s Tourney time

Sam Werner | Friday, March 28, 2008

Notre Dame may be lucky to have made the NCAA tournament, but now that it has, the Irish plan on making some serious noise.

“We have nothing to lose. It’s one game or done,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “We might as well go out and empty the tank and play the very best we can to see if we can’t play again Saturday with an opportunity to get to the Frozen Four.”

Just making the Tournament was a challenge for the Irish, who qualified despite losing in the CCHA semifinals against Miami, and then falling to Northern Michigan in the consolation game. Due to the complex nature of the selection process, if Notre Dame had tied NMU instead of lost, it probably would have been left out of the NCAA Tournament.

The No. 4 Irish will match up against the No. 1 seed University of New Hampshire in the first round of the West regional in Colorado Springs, Colo. The Wildcats are led by senior forwards Matt Fornataro and Mike Radja, who combined for 89 points on the season. In net, Kevin Regan led the Hockey East Association with a sterling 2.12 GAA and .933 save percentage.

“We’ve seen a little bit of them on film already,” Irish senior captain Mark Van Guilder said. “But they’re a talented team [with] good speed.”

The speed may play to New Hampshire’s advantage on the Olympic-size ice sheet at World Arena, which is slightly bigger than the NHL-size rink on which the Irish are used to playing. The Wildcats, on the other hand, play their home games on the larger sheet.

Jackson, though, has plenty of experience on the larger rink during his time coaching the United States junior team. He said some effects of the rink, like the theory that the added open space leads to more offense, were exaggerated.

“I think it actually hurts the game offensively because there’s so much additional space that you can kind of get lost in,” Jackson said. “The biggest thing is that you have to learn to play more inside the dots.”

“It’s an ocean, so if you get trapped playing outside the areas that you normally do, you can play a lot of perimeter hockey.”

However, Jackson said the Wildcats like to spread the puck out around the ice and this could work to their advantage on the bigger sheet. New Hampshire, like the rest of the HEA, plays a much more open, free-flowing game. The conference is traditionally smaller and quicker than the rough-and-tumble CCHA.

“They’re an extremely talented team,” Jackson said. “They have the same kind of talent as a team like Miami, but they play the game a little differently.”

Van Guilder compared the Wildcats’ offensive talent, if not playing style, to CCHA rival Michigan.

“They have that kind of talent and that kind of speed,” Van Guilder said. “We’re going to try to frustrate them again like we do against offensive-minded teams. It’ll be a challenge.”

This is the second straight year the Irish have qualified for the NCAA tournament, and only the third time in the program’s history. Last year, the Irish beat Alabama-Huntsville 3-2 in double overtime in the first round, but fell to eventual champion Michigan State in the second round. This year, the Irish head into the Tournament with a slightly different mindset than last year, when they were the No. 1 overall seed.

“It’s a little different, obviously you’re opponent’s going to be a little bit stronger,” junior forward Garrett Regan said of being the underdog. “[But] we know what we’ve got going on inside of our locker room, and from that standpoint, it doesn’t really change from last year.”

If the Irish beat UNH on Friday afternoon, they will move on to face the winner of the Michigan State-Colorado College matchup.

The Irish have plenty of experience with the Spartans, having played them twice in CCHA play this season, falling 3-1 in East Lansing and tying 1-1 in the Joyce Center. Notre Dame hasn’t faced the Tigers, though, since it lost 3-1 in the 2005 season.

“That bracket is awesome,” Van Guilder said. “There’s awesome teams there.”

For now, though, Jackson and the Irish are focused on New Hampshire and only New Hampshire.

“We’re 120 minutes away from playing in the Frozen Four, and that’s the way we have to look at it,” Jackson said. “But we’ve got to tick off every minute with great play. We have to worry about the first minute before we worry about the first 20 or the first 60.”