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Bulldogs await Notre Dame

Allan Joseph | Wednesday, April 6, 2011

When the Irish first reached the Frozen Four in 2008, then-freshmen Calle Ridderwall, Ben Ryan and Ryan Guentzel entered the Pepsi Center with wide eyes. Now seniors, their eyes display focus instead — a focus they feel is crucial to pass on to Notre Dame’s 12 freshmen if the Irish are to claim the program’s first-ever national championship.

“[We’ve] just got to let [the freshmen] know it’s just another game,” Ridderwall said. “We’ve got to keep our eyes on the prize — we’re trying to win a championship, we’re not just going there just to have a great experience. I think it’s important to realize that we’re still playing for a championship and these are just two playoff games.”

Notre Dame (25-13-5) will face Minnesota-Duluth (24-10-6) Thursday in a matchup that seemed improbable just two weeks ago. The Irish backed into the NCAA Tournament, losing two games in the CCHA playoffs by a combined six goals — a far less-than-auspicious start to playoff hockey. When Notre Dame gave up two early goals to Merrimack in its first-round game, a Frozen Four berth seemed out of the question — yet the Irish clawed their way back past the Warriors and then past New Hampshire to reach Saint Paul.

“We had a bad weekend in Detroit,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “Every time this team has had a bad performance they’ve shown the resiliency to come back and play well. It was a new season in the NCAA tournament — a new life.”

On the other side of the bracket, the Bulldogs had to face a hot Union team and then a matchup with the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed Yale — yet they won each game by a comfortable two-goal margin to reach the Frozen Four. Now, the two meet on college hockey’s biggest stage just 150 miles from Duluth. The potential home-field advantage won’t intimidate the Irish, however.

“Some of the guys mentioned it last week,” Jackson said. “They’d rather play in a loud environment with a jam-packed house than a half-empty building whether home or away.”

That jam-packed house will pose challenges of its own, as the sold-out Xcel Energy Center (home to the NHL’s Minnesota Wild) seats over 18,000 compared to the 3,000 who usually pack the Joyce Center for Notre Dame home games. On the other hand, the Irish have played in a number of large arenas, including Ralph Engelstad Arena (capacity 11,640) and Joe Louis Arena (capacity 20,066).

“Just knowing you can play in big games and having that confidence is huge when you go into a series like this in the Frozen Four,” Ridderwall said. “All you can do out there is just play your game. We’ve practiced all year — we know what we can do. We just can’t get carried away with everything going on around the ice.”

Literally one or two games away from the end of their Notre Dame careers, Ridderwall and the other seniors have had the opportunity to reflect on the new heights to which they have taken the program.

“It’s very special to be in the Frozen Four half the seasons you’re in college,” Ridderwall said. “It’s very exciting.”

Jackson hopes his seniors will use that reflection to better their younger teammates in their quest for a title that has thus far eluded the Irish.

“I think it’s certainly a help that they can let [the freshmen] know about all the distractions that take place,” he said. “It’s going to be a circus in a lot of ways, so to make sure they stay focused and don’t get distracted by all the things going on around them is really important.”

If Notre Dame can defeat the Bulldogs, it will take on the winner of the Michigan-North Dakota game. The Irish have faced both the Wolverines (28-10-4) and Fighting Sioux (32-8-3) this season. Notre Dame went 1-2 against Michigan, with the lone win coming in Ann Arbor. The teams’ most recent meeting was March 19 when the Wolverines won 4-2 in Detroit in the CCHA third-place game. Notre Dame took an early-season road trip to Grand Forks, dropping the first game to the Sioux but responding with a hard-fought tie in the second game.

When asked if his team’s familiarity with either possible national championship opponent was an advantage, Jackson could do nothing but give a wry smile and shake his head.

“I’m not worrying about it,” he said. “It’s one game. We don’t win it, it doesn’t matter. We have to win [Thursday], and that’s all that matters at this point.”

Yet again Jackson taught focus, and his team seems to have heard him. With 12 freshmen leading the way, it has been up to the seniors to preach the gospel according to Jackson — and they have been its apostles.

“I think we have to focus on Minnesota-Duluth,” Ridderwall said. “I don’t think we really have to focus on what’s going to happen when we get up there — what nice hotels they’re going to be, how big a rink it’s going to be. I think we just need to keep focusing on Minnesota-Duluth.”

Notre Dame faces the Bulldogs at 5 p.m. Thursday in the Xcel Energy Center. The game will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPN3.com. The national championship game will take place in the same venue and will be televised live at 7 p.m. Saturday on ESPN and ESPN3.com