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ND faces Merrimack in opener

Allan Joseph | Thursday, March 24, 2011

After a disappointing end to the season, the No. 9 Irish have one final shot at glory as they enter the first round of the NCAA tournament, taking on No. 7 Merrimack in Manchester, N.H.

“I know that it’s my last chance to win a championship,” senior center Ben Ryan said. “I just want to make the most of every day because my career here is almost over.”

Notre Dame (23-13-5) came into the season with low expectations but rode a strong performance from the freshmen — who dominate the roster — to the top of the CCHA standings late in the season. Facing Western Michigan at home in the regular-season finale needing a win to clinch the crown, however, the Irish fell short by the count of 2-0. The slide was compounded when Notre Dame dropped a 6-2 decision to No. 4 Miami in the conference semifinals and then lost 4-2 to Michigan in the third-place game.

“We have to overcome this paralyzing factor that happens to us where we’re so nervous,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “I sense our team being focused, and yet we go out on the ice and it seems like we’re tentative and I don’t know if it’s a fear of making mistakes or whatever it is. Hopefully after having gone through it we’ll be able to get back.”

Jackson and the Irish are in an oddly familiar place, especially for the seniors. Three years ago, Ryan, senior left wing Calle Ridderwall and senior right wing Ryan Guentzel were freshmen on a team that made an unlikely run to the national championship game after a disappointing CCHA tournament in Detroit.

“The juniors and seniors on this team want to get to the Frozen Four,” Jackson said. “Those kids know what happened that year, and it came off of two losses in Detroit.”

Notre Dame will face Merrimack (25-9-4) in its first-round game, and while the Warriors are not a traditional hockey power, Jackson knows that they are “the real deal.” What worries Jackson is that the Irish will look at the winner of the Miami (OH)/New Hampshire game — played directly before the Irish’s own game — and get caught looking ahead to its possible regional final opponent.

“If we look past Merrimack, we won’t be playing Miami,” Jackson said. “They’re going to be as good a team as we face this weekend, if not better — I couldn’t tell you. They’re right there with BC.”

While Notre Dame’s youth may have contributed to some early high-pressure jitters, there is hope that the freshmen who played so well for most of the season will return — that their youth will lead to resilience.

“With 12 freshmen and a couple of sophomores that haven’t had the NCAA experience, the underdog mentality lets them be a little looser and a littler freer,” Guentzel said. “When we played BC [earlier in the season] we had that underdog mentality, and it was helpful for us.”

Jackson, however, does not want to encourage an underdog mentality — or, for that matter, any storyline. He only wants his squad to focus on the task at hand.

“I don’t want them thinking underdog, I don’t want them thinking overdog,” he said. “I want them to think about playing the way we’re capable of playing and not being nervous. They need to go out there and play.”

The Warriors play in the Hockey East conference, which has a significantly more up-tempo style than Notre Dame’s CCHA. Hockey East games feature fast-skating teams, and while the Irish play in a significantly more technical and physical conference, they believe that their speed will match up well.

“I think it’s going to work out well for us because we’re such a great skating team,” Lavin said. “We don’t want to get into a track meet, but we’ll be able to handle it for sure.”

Jackson outlined a number of keys for success beyond his team’s mental preparation. Rather than focus on anything schematic against an opponent the Irish have not faced before this season, Jackson said his team will focus on fundamentals and discipline.

“You have to play 60 minutes, first of all. You’ve got to play good special teams,” he said. “It really boils down to creating your own breaks, playing well with the puck, not turning the puck over. You have to make sure that you’re able to play four lines, and that means discipline, staying out of the penalty box.”

Guentzel mentioned another important key for the young players on the team, one that was sorely missing when Notre Dame fell behind 4-0 in the first period against the RedHawks last weekend.

“The main thing for this team this year is getting off to good starts,” he said. “With a young team, I think getting off to a good start and giving them confidence to make plays is vital for us this weekend.”

Selection Sunday provided Jackson with an opportunity to reflect on the season and his squad’s somewhat surprising success.

“There were a lot of question marks for [the upperclassmen] heading into the season,” he said. “For a young group like this to make it to [the CCHA semifinals] and make the tournament is a real positive, but we’re not going to Manchester to lose.”

Knowing that each game could be their last, Lavin said the four seniors will leave everything on the ice in their final quest for a program-defining title.

“We don’t have another chance after this, so we don’t really have anything to look forward to in the future,” he said. “It’s do or die now.”

The Irish face Merrimack at 7:30 p.m. in Manchester Saturday. If Notre Dame wins, it will face the winner of the Miami-New Hampshire game Sunday at 8 p.m.