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Hockey: Irish to play in first round of NCAA’s

Matt Gamber | Friday, March 27, 2009

A year after skating all the way to the Frozen Four as a No. 4 seed, No. 1 Notre Dame won’t overlook No. 4 Bemidji State when the teams open NCAA Tournament play Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“We realized that it doesn’t matter – first or fourth seed, it’s a one-game shot every game, and four seeds can make a run for it,” senior captain Erik Condra said. “They’ve got nothing to lose, and they can put it all on the table like we did last year.”

The Irish (31-5-3) have been on both sides of the one-four matchup in recent years. Last season, Notre Dame upset New Hampshire, and two years ago, the top-seeded Irish needed two overtimes to dispose of No. 4 Alabama-Huntsville.

The Beavers (18-15-1) play in the CHA, the same conference as Alabama-Huntsville, so that bit of symmetry has Notre Dame aware of the possibility of a first-round upset.

“I have enough confidence in this group that they’re going to make sure our team’s ready to play, regardless of who the opponent is,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said.

Condra said he and his fellow seniors have shared their tournament experiences of the past two seasons with the underclassmen, and that those should help in preparing for Bemidji State.

“There’s two things that can happen, and we’ve seen them both first hand. You can underestimate a team like we did Alabama-Huntsville two years ago, and we can’t do that, and I don’t think we’re going to do that this year,” Condra said. “And if you get down, you have to stick to what’s going right for you, and not get individualistic. It happened a little bit two years ago, but I think we showed against Michigan that it’s not going to happen this year.”

The Irish got a big taste of playoff hockey at the CCHA tournament in Detroit last weekend, when Notre Dame overcame a two-goal deficit to beat the Wolverines (29-11-0), 5-2, for the conference title. While the Beavers don’t boast the same top-level talent that Michigan does, Jackson said his team’s first-round opponent plays a similarly up-tempo style.

“They really pursue the puck hard, and they’re a fast team,” Jackson said. “They’re the kind of team that can get underneath your skin if you’re not smart with the puck or you’re not good defensively.”

Puck control was an issue against Michigan early in the game, and an Irish turnover led to the Wolverines’ second goal. The Beavers will try to force Notre Dame’s high-powered attack into playing faster than it would like, with the hopes of turning turnovers into goals.

“They’re feisty, they’re high flying and they’re not going to lay back at all,” Condra said. “They’ve got some speed, and they’re going to be a tough team to play.”

Leading the Irish, per usual, will be goaltender Jordan Pearce. The senior, who took Tournament MVP honors at the CCHA finals last weekend, is the nation’s leader in victories, shutouts and goals-against average, and he made several big saves to keep it close before the offense got going against Michigan.

“You don’t win a championship without great goaltending,” Jackson said. “Without him, we wouldn’t be where we are in the NCAA Tournament, and we wouldn’t have won in Detroit. He’s been the rock back there, he’s been consistent from Day 1, and he does it on a nightly basis.”

The winner of Saturday’s matchup would play either No. 3 Northeastern or No. 4 Cornell on Sunday night for the Midwest Regional crown and a trip to the Frozen Four in Washington, D.C. on April 9. And while the Irish are heavy favorites to make a run to the nation’s capital, Jackson said he isn’t buying the hype just yet.

“We can’t worry about a national championship until we focus on Bemidji,” Jackson said. “If we start looking ahead, we’ll be looking behind us.”