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Hockey: Irish get goals from new places without Condra

Matt Gamber | Wednesday, April 9, 2008

After Irish junior right wing Erik Condra was helped off the ice by teammates after being injured in a March 16 playoff win over Ferris State, one question surged through the minds of nearly every onlooker – how will the Irish deal with the loss of their leading scorer?

That inquiry was answered resoundingly in Colorado Springs, where the Irish pulled off two upsets to advance to this tonight’s Frozen Four.

But the less-pondered question remains – how is Condra himself coping with the pain of not only a knee injury, but also the pain of watch his teammates vie for a national title without him on the ice?

The Injury

The game against the Bulldogs was a physical one, with both teams fighting for a chance to extend their seasons by advancing to the CCHA semifinals in Detroit the next weekend.

Midway through the first period, Condra was checked hard at center ice, where he appeared to get tangled with a teammate before crashing hard to the sheet. He lay on the ice for several seconds before play was stopped, at which time he was helped off the ice and into the locker room.

“I always thought positively,” Condra said. “I knew it was hurt, so I tried to get off the ice. Once I got in the locker room, I still wasn’t sure – I hopefully thought I’d be able to come back and play the game, but obviously that didn’t happen. The docs took a look at it and knew it was pretty bad.”

With the Irish fighting for a spot in the CCHA semifinals, they couldn’t afford to let Condra’s injury keep them from putting away Ferris State – and a newfound sense of urgency was immediately evident, senior captain Mark Van Guilder said.

“It was pretty clear that we needed a lot of guys to step up to pick up for his absence,” he said. “There was nothing said during the game, but you could see things really change among the guys over the next couple shifts – guys realizing the scoring’s going to have to come from somewhere, so we better pick it up.”

But according to coach Jeff Jackson, it wasn’t just the scoring that would need a boost.

“Anytime a player goes down, I’m obviously concerned about the welfare of the player first and foremost,” Jackson said. “Then you start gaining some perspective about all the areas where you’re going to miss him – and it’s not just from an offensive perspective. He’s one of our top guys on the power play, and we rely on him a lot in penalty-killing and with [the other team’s] goalie pulled.”

And it wouldn’t take long for one of those “other” areas to come into play.

With the Irish desperately clinging to a 1-0 lead late in their CCHA semifinal match-up with then-No. 3 Miami (Ohio), the RedHawks pulled their goalie to create a six-on-five advantage and attempt to score the game-tying goal – and they did just that.

Miami won a crucial face-off in the Notre Dame defensive zone, and RedHawks forward Mitch Ganzak sent the game to overtime by beating Irish goalie Jordan Pearce with 3.4 seconds to play in regulation.

“The funny thing is that’s actually the position that Erik Condra would have been in [taking the face-off],” Jackson said after the loss. “We practice that situation, five-on-six, with Erik, but since Erik got hurt last Sunday, we didn’t practice it last week with a new player. It’s hindsight, but it’s one of the areas that you just lose track of the fact that he’s the guy that would have been on the ice in that situation. Everybody talks about his losses from other areas, but that’s one that even we as coaches didn’t anticipate the importance of.”

Picking it up

Obviously the Irish have lived to see another day, earning an NCAA tournament berth despite losing both their games in Detroit. But Miami’s late goal was a play that could have cost them their season – and yet the Irish have fought on, without their fallen star.

“When you lose a guy like that, especially being a senior, it’s your duty to step up,” senior captain Mark Van Guilder said. “You can’t replace him, but you help out and pick it up a little bit.”

And Van Guilder has come through, notching three assists in the 7-3 thrashing of New Hampshire and scoring the game-winner in the regional championship win over Michigan State. He was named the West Regional’s most outstanding player.

But the Irish captain is just one of several players who has elevated his game in the place of the injured Condra. Notre Dame received a tremendous unassisted goal from sophomore left wing Dan Kissel, and the Irish have also had key goals from the likes of left wing Ryan Thang and center Kevin Deeth (Condra’s former linemates) and defensemen Kyle Lawson, Ian Cole and Teddy Ruth.

Junior center Christian Hanson was perhaps the most impressive in Colorado Springs, scoring three goals and adding an assist in the two games to earn all-regional honors.

“Erik’s the best player on our team, so when he went down, we knew that all the guys around him were going to have to pick it up,” Hanson said. “I’ve just been trying to do my part, get in [near the net] a little more and take a few more chances offensively.”

The efforts of the perhaps once-less-heralded Irish players have certainly not gone unnoticed.

“They have definitely picked it up for me,” Condra said. “It’s good to see them battling and doing all the little things at the right time. We’re paying attention to details, and we’re taking that intensity to the next level, where it needs to be at Tournament time.

“I’ve seen guys take it to that next level, which we haven’t really seen this year. They’re stepping it up, and now that we’ve seen it, we’re going to hold them to that great level of play.”

The new biggest fan

For Condra, watching the team he led just a few weeks ago advance to the first Frozen Four in school history is bittersweet.

“It’s tough not being there just because I’ve battled with these guys all year, they have gone so far and it’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” Condra said. “But I love seeing these guys succeed – they’re like my brothers. I want them to do well, and that’s all I hope for.”

Condra has made it a habit to sit in the locker rooms with his teammates before games before retreating to the stands with the other members of the Irish team who don’t dress – a routine he does “for my own sake,” he said.

“It’s almost harder to be a fan than a player because you’re sitting there and you can’t do anything about it,” Condra said. “I was probably one of the most excited guys out there when we won, and I think I’m just as big a part of it now as I was when I was on the ice – and they have helped me with that.”

That has been a focus of the team and its coaching staff, Jackson said.

“The thing that’s tough for me is to watch him see what’s happening right now,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s more passionate about playing the game than Erik, and I know that inside it’s just killing him not being [on the ice].

“I want to make sure he stays involved. He’s a huge component of our team and he still is, from a leadership and an emotional perspective. I want to make sure he gets the chance to enjoy this, even though he won’t be able to fully enjoy it because he’s not [on the ice].”

Though Jackson knows the team will miss its star tonight against Michigan, and that Condra himself is certainly unhappy with being injured, the Irish coach knows the experience could help Condra in the long run.

“He hasn’t missed a game until now, and this is an opportunity for him to see things from the coaches’ perspective and from his teammates’ perspective,” he said. “You never want to see that happen, but hopefully it’ll allow him to heal up and have a senior year beyond anything that he’s done thus far.”

And Condra hopes for, and expects, the same thing.

“Ill be training hard this offseason because I’ve seen where this program can be,” said Condra, who plans to be back for Notre Dame’s first game next fall. “I want to make sure I get a chance to be out there on that ice with them.”