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Hockey: JACC hosts last regular season finale

Chris Allen | Friday, February 25, 2011

The 42-year regular season history of the Joyce Center will close the book on an era of Notre Dame hockey Saturday night as the No. 8 Irish will have a chance to honor the arena’s history with one last regular season CCHA crown.

Notre Dame faces off against Western Michigan in a home-and-home series this weekend, with the Irish clinging to a one-point lead in the CCHA standings. The game will mark the end of Notre Dame’s final full regular season slate at the arena.

Fresh off a road sweep of Ferris State, Notre Dame has clinched a first-round bye in the upcoming CCHA Championship tournament along with home-ice for the second round to be played the weekend of March 11-13. The CCHA regular-season championship still hangs in the balance however, as Notre Dame and Michigan will settle their back-and-forth battle at the top of the standings on the season’s final weekend. The Wolverines face Northern Michigan on the road for their season finale. Irish coach Jeff Jackson said the goal of winning the CCHA crown means that the team needs to be playing its best going into the postseason.

“The fact that we’ve clinched home ice in the second round was one of our season objectives, and to have the opportunity on the weekend to play for a conference championship is important,” Jackson said. “But it’s more important, in my opinion, that we’re playing at our very best as we go into the playoffs.”

After winning at home and tying on the road in Kalamazoo, Mich. in an earlier home-and-home series with the Broncos, the Irish will hit the road on Friday night to contend with a team that has vastly improved in the 2010-11 season and will be fighting for a first-round bye in the CCHA Championship as they currently sit fourth in the standings.

“I expect it to be a tremendously competitive series,” Jackson said. “They’ve had a great year; [head coach] Jeff Blashill’s done a nice job there.”

After facing off in Kalamazoo Friday night, the teams will return to South Bend for a Saturday night clash that will double as a retrospective on the history of Notre Dame hockey at the Joyce Center and Senior Night event for the Irish seniors. The team will honor the accomplishments of senior manager Matthew McManus along with goalie Brian Brooke, wing Calle Ridderwall, wing Ryan Guentzel, center Ben Ryan and defenseman Joe Lavin. The class has been a distinguished one for the Irish program, with Ryan, Guentzel and Ridderwall contributing on 2007-08’s national runner-up squad. The players turned in three 20-win seasons in their four years, and Ridderwall said he looks back fondly on his years in a Notre Dame uniform.

“Obviously, it’s special going into your last weekend in the regular season as a Notre Dame player, going into senior night, it’s pretty emotional and bittersweet. It’s been a great ride so far and you just hope to keep it going through the playoffs,” he said. “As a senior, you only have a couple of classes, you have a lot of time on your hands to think back on your college career. I have a lot of highlights, a lot of memories from this place which I know I’m going to have for the rest of my life.”

Ryan emphasized the importance of finishing off his college career with championships, a process that can begin with a strong performance this weekend and a CCHA title.

“The goal is to win the playoffs and win the championship, but that is a championship, the regular season title,” he said.

“With all the [freshmen] coming in, for these guys to get to hang a banner in the new rink, that’d be something special.”

As the team heads into the final weekend of the regular

season in position to hang a banner with a squad that was largely unproven coming into the year, Jackson said that the leadership of his seniors cannot be questioned.

“People probably questioned how our leadership was going to be going into this season, but I think our leadership’s been as good as it’s been since I’ve been here,” he said.

The Irish will take the ice with playoff implications on the line in Kalamazoo Friday night at 7:35 p.m. and again at the Joyce Center Saturday night at 7:05 p.m.