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Senior experience

Chris Allen | Thursday, March 24, 2011

It was arguably the biggest moment in Notre Dame hockey history — the brightest lights, the biggest stage and the top opponent in the country.

A shot from the high slot slipped past Michigan senior goalie Bryan Hogan in overtime during the semifinal game of the 2008 Frozen Four, elevating the Irish to a place they have never been before — the National Championship game — and right in the middle of the action were three freshmen.

Left wing Calle Ridderwall scored the goal just feet away from a fellow freshman, Ryan Guentzel. On the bench, center Ben Ryan poured over the wall to celebrate the goal with his teammates. The moment was the high point in a long Irish hockey tradition — yet these were just kids.

Fast forward three years, and the trio of Ryan, Guentzel and Ridderwall are three of four members of an illustrious quartet of senior captains leading No. 9 Notre Dame (23-13-5) into its second NCAA tournament since that Frozen Four experience in 2008, which ultimately ended in a 4-1 loss to Boston College in the title game. As they prepare for their last chance to bring a first NCAA championship back to South Bend, the group of seniors remembers fondly the Frozen Four run that has defined their postseason careers thus far.

“Three years, it seems so long ago, but I remember it like yesterday. [The Michigan game] was one of the greatest games that I’ve ever been a part of,” Guentzel said. “We were up big on Michigan early, and then they came storming back. I remember sitting on the bench saying, ‘This is so nerve-wracking’ and being able to go out there and get an opportunity in overtime was something that I know me and Calle personally will never forget.”

Though Ryan was not on the ice for the 5-4 overtime winner as Guentzel and Ridderwall were, he shared in the memories of the game.

“I just remember, I think we came out in the first period and scored a bunch of goals. The mindset going into that game was the same kind of mindset we have now. I think Michigan was No. 1 in the country. They had Kevin Porter, the Hobey Baker Award winner, and he was the best player in the country,” Ryan said. “They were obviously picked to win it all by a majority of people, so we went in there and thought that maybe they would fall victim to the pressure. We tried to put a lot of pressure on them and play our game.”

The goal in the Michigan game, the second of the contest for Ridderwall, served as a springboard for the rest of the Swedish forward’s career. He came back in the 2008-09 season and 2009-10 seasons and posted seasons of 17 and 19 goals respectively as a lead member of Irish coach Jeff Jackson’s attack. Though the speedy wing has struggled through injury in his senior campaign, Jackson said his development is evident.

“I think that [Calle] took huge strides in his sophomore and junior years. This year, he’s had a good year,” Jackson said. “I think the injury set him back, because not only did it set him back for the five games that he was out, but he didn’t get back to being 100 percent until the last couple weeks. I think it bodes well for us that he’s able to get back to 100 percent.”

Off the ice, Ridderwall’s colorful personality has made him a fan and teammate favorite — as well as the source of many a techno song blasted at high volume in the Irish locker room after big wins.

“Well, I mean, he likes to have fun, everybody knows that,” Guentzel said. “But he’s one of the hardest working kids on the team, in the weight room and on the ice. Being able to manage all of those things, it shows the young guys that we can have fun, but we know when to get serious. We know when we have to work hard.”

While Ridderwall has spent a chunk of the season sidelined with an injury, Guentzel has enjoyed a career year, setting new highs in both goals and assists en route to posting 37 points on the season, good for third on the team. Guentzel acknowledged his success this year, but said he doesn’t feel extra pressure going into his final postseason.

“We’ve had a great year so far,” he said. “Just doing what you can to help the team is all that matters, if you compete your hardest, you have to be happy with what happens. There’s not that much pressure.”

Like his fellow assistant captain and frequent line mate Guentzel, Ryan has also enjoyed a productive year on the ice as the center on the top Irish lines. Unlike Guentzel and Ridderwall, whose production was limited in their freshman years despite their moment in the Frozen Four, Ryan has been a consistent contributor throughout his four years under Jackson.

This season has been no different, and the Brighton, Mich., product has posted 18 assists and 24 points over the course of the season. Jackson said one of his main memories of Ryan’s career thus far was his stellar play in the 2009 CCHA championship that helped the Irish bring home the title in Detroit.

“Benny, his moments at Joe Louis Arena [in Detroit] a couple of years ago helped us win the CCHA Championship there,” he said.

The trio of seniors, all assistant captains, are joined in leadership by a transfer from Providence who ascended to the sole captain’s role with less than a year’s experience on the ice with the Irish — defenseman Joe Lavin. Though he is a senior, and the other seniors have multiple NCAA Tournament games under their belt, Saturday’s first-round matchup with Merrimack will be Lavin’s first taste of NCAA action. The senior from Shrewsbury, Mass., said the other seniors have prepared him mentally for what to expect.

“[The others seniors have told me] it’s a different environment. Playoff hockey is playoff hockey. It’s obviously going to be pretty exciting,” he said. “I think I have a little bit to contribute. We’re playing Merrimack and that’s a team that I’m obviously accustomed to, so they’ll be able to help me out and I’ll be able to help them and the team out.”

On a team that’s roster is nearly half composed of freshmen, the four Irish senior leaders has grown close during the process of leading such a young team through the season. Ryan said that the dynamic between the four has brought them together over hockey and the successful 2010-11 season.

“It’s really close-knit. Four people is a really small class. We started with seven guys, four of them are gone now, and obviously we added Joe,” Ryan said. “We all live together, we’ve had a great season. We’ve mentioned numerous times to each other, this is our most fun year playing hockey.”

Lavin echoed Ryan’s statements about the team’s close-knit nature.

“This is the closest hockey team I’ve ever been a part of,” he said.

As the final group of seniors to play in the Joyce Center, this group serves a special purpose in closing the book on an era of Irish hockey — an era that they have capped with three NCAA tournament appearances in four years. Jackson said that regardless of the team’s play in this upcoming tournament, he would have lasting memories of the outgoing class of seniors.

“There’s always going to be a lot of memories. I think that Frozen Four experience and the Michigan game will be big ones,” Jackson said. “It was Guentzel to Ridderwall that won that game in overtime and Calle scored two goals in that game. But Joe Lavin has been an important part of this team as well. There are all different kinds of memories that you have. They’re not always on the ice. Some of them are off the ice.”

With the lights having gone out on the final full season in the Joyce Center, the Irish seniors will lead Notre Dame to Manchester, N.H. to face No. 7 Merrimack (25-9-4) while looking to surpass the memories they made in their freshman season.

“I fully believe that our team has a chance to get back to the same spot,” Ryan said. “We’ve played against the best teams in the country and competed with them. Hopefully, I’ll look back on this year and remember it as the best moment.”