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Hockey: Conference champs upended by Bemidji St.

Matt Gamber | Thursday, August 13, 2009

Led by a group of seniors that Irish coach Jeff Jackson said helped changed the culture of the program, Notre Dame followed up last year’s national runner-up finish with a dominating regular season and a CCHA title that won’t soon be forgotten despite a disappointing loss in the NCAA tournament’s first round.

“Probably 95 percent of the teams in the country would have loved to have our season,” Jackson said. “It’s a blemish, but it’s the timing of [the NCAA loss] that hurt the most. I think winning the league and playoffs was another sign that we’re making good progress.”

Perhaps the biggest sign of the Notre Dame (31-6-3, 21-4-3 CCHA) program’s development under Jackson was the Feb. 12 announcement that the University will begin construction on a new, freestanding ice arena next spring that will be ready for the 2011-12 season. First-year athletics director Jack Swarbrick was a major supporter of the project, which had significant funding secured more than a year ago, but only recently received approval and a definite timeline for completion.

“The fact that hockey has arrived on the campus is a huge thing, and we want to continue that in the next few years moving into a new building,” Jackson said.

Jackson has emphasized all along that while the graduating seniors won’t have the opportunity to play in the new rink, it was their contributions over the last four years – Jackson’s first four at Notre Dame – that helped make the dream facility a reality.

Captain Erik Condra led the Irish in scoring in each of the last four years, and he was also a finalist this past season for the conference’s top defensive forward honor. Condra, along with goaltender Jordan Pearce, was also one of 10 finalists for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award.

Pearce manned the Notre Dame goal for each of the past two years after sitting behind All-American Dave Brown for his first two. But Pearce made his time count, leading the nation and setting single-season Irish records in wins and shutouts as a senior.

And Jackson said his other four seniors – current Toronto Maple Leafs center Christian Hanson, Luke Lucyk, Garrett Regan and Justin White – all stepped it up for their final season and provided valuable ice time in addition to quality leadership in the locker room.

“There’s no question that they’ve put us in position to be where we are,” Jackson said. “Erik Condra was consistent throughout his career, but [others] really took their game to another level.”

The seniors’ departures will surely hurt the Irish, but the proverbial cupboard is not bare by any means. Notre Dame will likely be one of the top teams in the country in preseason polls, as one of the nation’s top recruiting classes will team with a solid returning core that includes eight of last season’s top 10 scorers.

Among the returnees will be sophomore Calle Ridderwall, who built on a strong finish to his freshman campaign by leading the Irish with 17 goals, including 11 on the power play – one of the top totals in the country. Notre Dame will also return freshman Billy Maday, whose 16 goals put him among the nation’s top newcomers.

The blue line will also be strong come October, with the return of juniors Kyle Lawson and Brett Blatchford and sophomores Ian Cole and Teddy Ruth to a defense that was underrated in the shadow of Pearce’s dominance and the offense’s ability to put up crooked goal tallies.

“There will be some adjustment, but we’ve got potential for a good group of leaders next year,” Jackson said. “We’ve got some big holes to fill, but I’m hoping that some guys continue to elevate their game similar to what Christian and Jordan did this year.”

Notre Dame’s tremendous regular season came as no surprise to most, as the Irish were a consensus No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the preseason polls. But they struggled a bit out of the gate, dropping three of their first five games – including the first two conference games at home to Miami (Ohio).

Perhaps those early defeats served as a wake-up call, though, as Notre Dame then rattled off a school-best 20-game unbeaten streak that spanned nearly three months – from an Oct. 31 loss to Miami to a Jan. 30 defeat at the hands of Michigan.

“We were getting production from a lot of people,” Jackson said of the streak. “I think our consistency was much better than in previous years.”

The streak helped the Irish distance themselves from the rest of the CCHA pack and solidify one of the top two spots in the national polls, where Notre Dame was ranked for nearly the entire the season.

After the Miami series, the Irish never again lost back-to-back games, running away with the league title and then taking the CCHA tournament championship with wins over Northern Michigan and Michigan.

The championship game victory over the Wolverines was particularly impressive, as Notre Dame overcame a two-goal deficit and a heavily pro-Michigan crowd to score five unanswered goals and win, 5-2, at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

“That’s why you play 60 minutes,” Jackson said after that victory. “It was just a matter of being patient enough to generate some scoring chances. Once we caught a break, it turned the tide for us.”

Most viewed the Irish as being poised for a deep NCAA run, but Notre Dame went up against a feisty, quick Bemidji St. team in the first round at the Grand Rapids, Mich., regional. The Beavers took control with a pair of fluky goals early in the game, and Notre Dame never recovered in a 5-1 loss that sent the heavy favorites home in shock.

“To be honest, it didn’t sink in for me until I was sitting in the locker room, looking around, and realized I was never going to put on this jersey again and never play with these guys again,” Hanson said after the game.

Though the end of Notre Dame’s season came sooner than many would have liked, Jackson noted that those feelings are another indication of how far the program has come just a few years removed from a single-digit win total.

“Expectations have changed for our program and I think that we left with an empty feeling to an extent,” Jackson said. “To become one of the top 10 teams in the country is one thing, but to try to sustain it is a lot more challenging.”