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Hockey: Rocky Mountain high

Matt Gamber and Sam Werner | Monday, March 31, 2008

Notre Dame entered the weekend as the West regional’s No. 4 seed, expected to step aside for the heavily-favored New Hampshire, the top seed.

But the Irish, who struggled in the second half of the season, to say the least, beat New Hampshire 7-3 Friday and Michigan State 3-1 Saturday to advance to the first Frozen Four in the program’s history.

“After the way the second half has gone, I’m just happy for our kids,” Jackson said. “You know, they persevered through a real difficult time. They still held together, they still worked hard.”

The Irish looked more at home on the larger, Olympic-sized ice surface. Jackson said the added space allowed Notre Dame more offensive creativity, especially on the power play.

“You can really stretch out a team’s penalty killing,” Jackson said. “And we didn’t get stretched out defensively, which was huge.”

Notre Dame moves on to face Michigan in the national semifinal in Denver on April 10. The Irish faced the Wolverines twice in CCHA play this season, falling 3-2 on a last-minute goal in Ann Arbor and 5-1 at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. Jackson called the Wolverines “probably the most explosive team in the country offensively.”

None of this could have been expected when Jackson arrived at Notre Dame three seasons ago. The Irish were coming off a 5-27-6 season and struggled to a 13-19-4 record in his first season. Jackson said while making the Frozen Four was “huge” for the program, he wants a championship.

“For this team to make their first appearance in the Frozen Four is great,” Jackson said. “But we can’t just be happy with that. We’re 120 minutes away from a championship, but all we can do is focus on the first minute of the first game.”

Irish 7, Wildcats 3

So much for Notre Dame’s scoring draught.

After hearing about their scoring woes for weeks and not posting more than three goals in a game since Jan. 26, the Irish offense exploded for seven goals in their regional semifinal win.

“It was their willingness to get it done,” Jackson said. “Confidence is everything. I think that our ability to score on the power play after [New Hampshire] scored the first two goals on breakdowns on face-offs, to be able to come back each time gave them confidence to know that they can compete with teams of that caliber.”

Senior captain Mark Van Guilder recorded three assists and junior Christian Hanson netted the first multi-goal game of his career, giving the Irish a 3-2 lead early in the second it would never relinquish. Hanson also added an empty-netter with three minutes to play.

The Wildcats scored just a minute into the game, but freshman defenseman Ian Cole tied the game back up 58 seconds later with a power-play goal that snuck through UNH goalie Kevin Regan’s pads.

The teams traded goals to end the first period, with Kyle Lawson scoring on the power play again for the Irish.

With Notre Dame up 3-2 midway through the second, sophomore left wing Dan Kissel used some skilled puck handling to give the Irish a two-goal advantage. With 5-on-3 New Hampshire advantage coming to a close, Kissel took the puck to the left wing boards, where he spun away from one defender and then split the rest of the Wildcats defense to fire a shot inside the left post.

New Hampshire’s Phil DeSimone scored three minutes later, though, making it 4-3 headed to the third – where the Irish would dominate.

Just 23 seconds into the period, Van Guilder and sophomore right wing Ryan Thang forced a turnover behind the New Hampshire net. Van Guilder corralled the puck and slid it to Thang, who fired home a wrister for a 5-3 Irish lead.

From there, the defense took over, and sophomore center Kevin Deeth and Hanson each added empty-netters to bury the Wildcats.

Irish 3, Spartans 1

Two third-period goals from Van Guilder and Teddy Ruth propelled Notre Dame to a victory over Michigan State and the first Frozen Four appearance in the program’s history.

Hanson put the Irish on the board first against the Spartans, scoring 2:43 into the second period. Hanson skated around the Michigan State net and tried to stuff the puck past Spartans goalie Jeff Lerg but was unsuccessful on his first attempt. On the rebound, though, Hanson managed to sneak the puck between Lerg’s legs and give Notre Dame 1-0 lead. It was Hanson’s third goal, and fourth point, of the weekend.

“Now that he’s showing that sign of consistency, he’s a dominant player at times,” Jackson said of Hanson.

The Irish lead lasted barely seven minutes, though, as Justin Abelkader evened the score at one at 9:05 of the second period. Abdelkader received a perfect pass from teammate Tim Kennedy at the left circle and fired a one-timer past Irish goalie Jordan Pearce.

Notre Dame appeared to take the lead 15:54 into the period, when Evan Rankin corralled a rebound in the low slot and, with Lerg out of position, fired a puck into the vacant net. But the goal was disallowed after video review showed that Irish forward Kevin Deeth obstructed Lerg.

“We were real calm on the bench just sitting there waiting for the call,” Van Guilder said. “Whatever the decision, we had to keep coming. You can’t let something like that kill your momentum.”

Even though the second period ended in a 1-1 tie, the Irish seemed to control the momentum heading into the final stanza.

Finally, at 14:06 of the third period and with overtime looming, Van Guilder scored the goal that would ultimately prove to be the game winner. After deflecting a pass from Ben Ryan off his skate and onto his stick, Van Guilder fired a low wrister past Lerg’s stick to give the Irish a 2-1 lead.

Ruth sealed the win for Notre Dame 1:14 later when he beat Lerg with a slapshot from the right point.

The win was a sort of vengeance for the Irish, who were eliminated in the regional finals by the Spartans last year. Jackson minimized the feeling of revenge, though.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of talk about [last year],” he said.