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Hockey: Enjoy the Mason Cup, but expect one more title to come in April

Dan Murphy | Monday, March 23, 2009

DETROIT – With a No. 1 ranking, the best record in college hockey (31-5-3) and an appearance in last year’s National Championship game it’s easy to overlook a CCHA title. Irish coach Jeff Jackson certainly has not.

Expectations have been high in South Bend all year. The fans, the media and the team all feel that if the season were to end next weekend it would be a disappointment. But that doesn’t mean winning the Mason Cup should be overlooked. It is a difficult trophy to win, and it is a trophy that means a lot to anyone who has had the chance to play for it.

This year’s CCHA is the toughest conference in the country. The conference will make up 25 percent of the NCAA Tournament and it could easily have been more. Two of the four teams still playing for a national title – Miami (Ohio) and Ohio State – didn’t even make it to Detroit last weekend.

Saturday night’s championship game more or less decided which team would get a local one-seed in Grand Rapids and which would have to travel to start the tournament. But to Jackson and the rest of the Irish that could not have meant less.

“It’s not like basketball. I get surprised when I hear how conference championships don’t seem like a big deal,” Jackson said. “For them it’s all about seeding. In hockey it’s a very big deal. Our conference championship is in line with what the Stanley Cup is for the NHL.”

Before we get too carried away with NCAA seeds and Frozen Four plans, it is important to take a second and realize what this team has already achieved.

Good. That’s taken care of, now on to why the Irish can and should win a national championship.

The coaching and the talent have been in place all year. This weekend Notre Dame showed it has the ability and poise to win under pressure – something that other talent-laden Irish teams have been unable to do this year.

When Northern Michigan’s Nick Sirota tied the semifinal game with 1:23 left on the clock, the flashbacks came immediately. Last year Miami scored a last-minute goal in the same game and eventually won in overtime. This time around was different.

Jackson immediately called his team over and told them this wasn’t going to be a repeat, to stay focused and get control of the game. Twenty-three seconds later sophomore Ben Ryan put the Irish up for good.

“This group never says die and that’s an important asset going into the NCAA Tournament,” Jackson said.

Saturday night they were tested again. Notre Dame was technically the home team, but the maize and blue colored Joe Louis Arena might as well have been in Ann Arbor. The crowd was getting behind the Wolverines who looked well in control with a 2-0 lead.

Once again there was no panic. The Irish continued to play their style of hockey and it paid off. A flurry of early third period goals shifted momentum towards Notre Dame and gave the Irish a 3-2 lead. When sophomore Calle Ridderwall scored his second goal of the game with nine minutes remaining the first fans started to trickle out. By the time Christiaan Minella buried his team’s fifth unanswered goal it looked like a fire drill.

A Notre Dame team coming from behind or closing out tight games is not something an Irish fan is used to seeing. But it is a hallmark of a championship team. The Irish already have one title under their belts, and they looked poised for a second.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Dan Murphy at [email protected]