The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Hockey: Irish forget regional, get to work against Michigan

Kyle Cassily | Wednesday, April 9, 2008

At the end of one practice early last week, Irish coach Jeff Jackson ordered his players to skate to the goal line, shattering any euphoria still left over from that weekend’s West Regional championship.

Jackson, who wanted to condition his players to handle the high altitude and low oxygen of the Frozen Four in Denver, skated them across the length of the rink until some looked ready to taste lunch again.

Freshman Ben Ryan barely made it across the line on his last back-and-forth, pushed to keep going by his teammates’ yells.

“It’s been good to let us come back to earth a little bit,” Irish captain Mark Van Guilder said about the two-week layover between the NCAA Tournament regional and the Frozen Four. “We were feeling pretty good about ourselves after that weekend. But you kind of realize after a few days that, hey, we still have work to do. That and some real tough practices early last week got that out of the system.”

The No. 5 Irish have a lot of work left to do when they play No. 1 Michigan tonight at 9 p.m. in Denver in the national semifinal. Notre Dame (26-15-4) lost twice to the Wolverines (33-5-4) during the regular season, stymied by a winning goal with 20 seconds left and then by a poor defensive performance in a 5-1 loss.

The two losses to Michigan came in January at the start of a two-and-a-half month stretch of futility during which the Irish went 9-11-4 prior to the upset 7-3 victory over New Hampshire in the NCAA quarterfinals.

“[Michigan] is on a mission, but I would like to believe our team is too,” Jackson said. “The confidence that we gained last weekend helped us a lot. The game against UNH helped us against Michigan State. The guys understand that, with all the turmoil and all the problems we had in the second half, I think they found out if they pay the price, they can beat anybody.”

The Wolverines’ offense was the most dynamic and deadly in college hockey this season, led by senior Kevin Porter – a Hobey Baker top-three finalist who led the nation in points with 62 (33 goals, 29 assists). Porter scored four goals in the NCAA quarterfinals two weeks ago against Niagara and is joined on his line by the nation’s No. 3 scorer, Chad Kolarik (28 goals, 26 assists).

“It takes five guys [to stop Michigan’s offense],” Van Guilder said. “It takes three forwards coming back as hard as they can … basically it’s all about keeping a good third man in the offensive zone so we don’t give up odd-man rushes. Once you give them time and space like that, that’s when they can be dangerous.”

Before last weekend’s regional, the Irish offense was as impotent as the Wolverines’ was dangerous. In the 21 games before the NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame scored only 43 goals.

But a seven-goal barrage against New Hampshire followed by three goals in the win over Michigan State against one of the nation’s top goalies in Jeff Lerg, has given confidence back to Notre Dame’s snipers.

“We were saying in Colorado Springs how nice it would have been if our forwards would have been scoring seven goals a game,” Irish defenseman Dan VeNard said. “It wouldn’t have been so nerve-racking on the back end.”

Michigan goalie Billy Sauer, although not a Hobey Baker finalist like Regan and Lerg, has posted a 1.89 goals-against average, fourth best in the nation. Sauer, a junior, started in net his first two seasons and received criticism at the start for his inability to replicate the success of former Wolverines netminder Al Montoya.

“You don’t really look at it from how good the goalie is or isn’t,” Van Guilder said. “You just look at trying to get people in front of him because any goalie, including him, is going to stop it if he can see it, so you want to get traffic in front of him like we did to the other guys. Make him go post to post, side to side, all of that.”

Irish goalie Jordan Pearce will start in net as he has done nearly all year, posting a 1.95 goals-against average while keeping Notre Dame in close games when the offense couldn’t score.

This is only the fourth time in Notre Dame history that a men’s team has advanced to an NCAA final four or championship tournament: The first three were men’s basketball in 1978, men’s lacrosse in 2001 and baseball in 2002.

The puck will drop 9 p.m. Eastern Time at the Pepsi Center in Denver and will be televised on ESPN 2.