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Hockey: Team’s magical run ends in national title loss

Matt Gamber | Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Notre Dame’s path to the best finish in school history, as national runners-up, could be summarized by the program’s biggest win: a 5-4 overtime thriller over CCHA rival and top-seeded Michigan in the Frozen Four semifinals on April 10.

The Irish opened the season with a 16-4 start, including a nine-game win streak heading into Christmas break. Against the Wolverines, the Irish jumped out to a 3-0 lead with a dominant first period on goals from freshman Calle Ridderwall, senior captain Mark Van Guilder and sophomore Ryan Thang.

But as they did in the second half of the regular season, going 8-11-4 before the NCAA Tournament, the Irish relinquished their early momentum against Michigan, giving up three unanswered goals to tie the game before eventually trading tallies to send the game, at 4-4, to overtime.

And despite almost giving it all away, as the Irish nearly did before sneaking into the Tournament as the last at-large team, Notre Dame overcame its own shortcomings in beating the Wolverines 5-4 in overtime, thanks to Ridderwall’s game-winner – his second of the game and just his fourth of the season.

“I think that the way we finished is definitely the most important thing,” third-year coach Jeff Jackson said. “It’s not about the beginning or the middle, it’s about the end, and getting there at the end is a real tribute to our kids… I think that the end is a good reflection on what we could be.”

The Michigan win was huge for the Irish in that they were able to avenge not only a pair of regular season losses to the Wolverines, but also to overcome their struggles in overtime – they had lost or tied their previous six – and one-goal games – they had lost three of their last four.

Though Notre Dame’s season ended with a 4-1 loss to Boston College in the national championship game, its journey to the Frozen Four in Denver, Colo. – the first in school history – sent a message to the rest of the college hockey nation: The Irish have arrived.

“We talk all the time about trying to build a championship-caliber team, and you’ve got to play well enough to get there. That’s the key,” Jackson said. “That’s a real positive thing for our program, to go from the year we had the year prior, to this year, showing some level of consistency as being one of the best teams in the country, is a huge step for our program.”

The Irish had to overcome several challenges along the road to the Frozen Four, including back-to-back match-ups with Michigan State and Michigan, two CCHA teams Notre Dame had gone 0-3-1 against during the regular season. And as the last at-large selection, few predicted Notre Dame would even give top-seeded New Hampshire much of a game.

The Irish responded by returning to early season form, scoring seven goals – something they hadn’t done since the final game of their pre-Christmas win streak – in a 7-3 thrashing of the Wildcats.

“As a coach, you always have that belief that you can do it,” Jackson said. “It’s just a matter of playing at that level. We showed signs of playing at that level at times throughout the season, and it was just a matter of putting it all together.”

The Irish did just that, getting all-star efforts from the likes of Van Guilder, who was named the NCAA West Regional MVP, and junior Christian Hanson, who scored three goals in the two regional games. Sophomore Kevin Deeth also scored a goal in each of the Frozen Four games.

Junior goaltender Jordan Pearce, who was named the CCHA’s goalie of the year over standouts like Michigan’s Billy Sauer and Michigan State’s Jeff Lerg, quietly outdueled his counterparts as he had all season while providing a calming presence between the Notre Dame posts.

What made the tournament run even more impressive was that the Irish were without their leading scorer, Erik Condra, who was injured in the decisive game three against Ferris State in the CCHA quarterfinals.

“I think that the injury to Erik Condra certainly helped some guys elevate their games because they knew that we couldn’t rely on Condra to lead us,” Jackson said. “We had to do it ourselves. Guys like Ryan Thang, Kevin Deeth, Christian Hanson and Danny Kissel played some of their best hockey of the season with the loss of Condra.”

The Irish needed them to extend their season after Condra’s injury. He went down midway through a tied game that the Irish went on to win 2-1, allowing them to advance to the CCHA semifinals at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Mich.

“Our guys knew that their season was on the line,” Jackson said. “They quit worrying about whatever it was [holding them back in the second half]. They just put their mind to not allowing the season to end.”

It seemed Notre Dame’s season would die in Detroit, as the Irish headed into the weekend expecting that they needed to win at least once to secure an NCAA berth. They lost a heartbreaking 2-1 overtime game in which Miami (Ohio) tied the game with just three seconds to play in regulation. The next night, in the consolation game, the favored Irish fell to Northern Michigan by the same score.

But the next day, when the NCAA pairings were released, the Irish were headed to Colorado Springs with new life.

“You’ve got to make the tournament, you’ve got to get to Joe Louis,” Jackson said. “You have to put yourself in position for that championship and our team did that… It’s something we aspire to do every year, but things have to go in a positive direction.”

And after Notre Dame’s best season in school history, and with plans pending for a new state-of-the-art arena, there’s reason to believe the program will continue in that direction.

“Just based on the returning guys, we should have a good hockey team, especially if we learn some lessons from how we played in the NCAA Tournament,” Jackson said. “If we could play that way on a consistent basis, we could have an extremely good team.”