Allan Joseph | Friday, October 7, 2011
Last year, No. 1 Notre Dame saw its season end in the Frozen Four with a 4-3 loss to eventual national champion No. 8 Minnesota-Duluth. This year, the Irish will open their season seeking retribution for that game — and the Bulldogs will make sure that game is firmly planted in Notre Dame’s mind.
“I don’t need to bring that up. They’re going to hang the [national championship] banner. Good for them — they deserve it,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “Our guys will notice that, because they know that’s the team that took the opportunity away from us. I don’t need to talk about that.”
While the storyline may be that of a team opening its season against the squad that ended its previous one, junior goalie Mike Johnson said the Irish will not use revenge as their primary motivating factor.
“I think, deep down, obviously there’s a little bit of revenge coming,” Johnson said. “But I think that it’s a new year. They’re not the same team, we’re not the same team, so it’s going to be a completely different environment [with two] completely different teams going at it. I think we’re going to take this as another game and focus on Friday.”
The 2010-11 Irish surged to the program’s second Frozen Four berth behind the surprising play of now-sophomores T.J. Tynan and Anders Lee, who headlined an extremely talented freshman class. While Tynan and Lee’s play last year may have been surprising for opponents to deal with, Jackson said this year will be totally different for the young players.
“There’s no more freebies for them. Everybody knows who they are now,” Jackson said. “They’ll be playing up against the other team’s top line, top defensemen. Some teams may play them differently, more aggressively or shadowing guys. There [are] all kinds of possibilities.”
While Tynan and Lee will have trouble fighting off opponents’ defenses, Jackson said the biggest key to avoiding a sophomore slump is mental toughness.
“With great players, you have great responsibility,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to be able to handle the pressure that people put on you.
“It’s not just the opponent, but it’s the pressure, that personal expectation they put on themselves. You’ve got to be careful not to let personal expectations beat you.”
Despite the high preseason expectations for the top-ranked Irish, Johnson said they were being careful not to take anything for granted.
“We’re focusing on always taking everything one day at a time,” Johnson said. “We’ve been getting better every day individually and as a team. I think guys are starting to get the system, and it’s been fun to come to practice.”
While Johnson struggled with consistency last year, he played his best in the NCAA tournament and led the Irish to the brink of a title. This year, Johnson expects to play more consistently.
“We have a really good team. Obviously that gives me the confidence to just go out and just play my game,” he said. “If I focus … and our team plays the way we’re capable of, we can be something special.”
Though the Irish will face a tough environment on the road in hockey-rabid Duluth, Jackson said the experience his squad had last year will help the Irish tune out distractions and focus on surpassing last season’s success.
“We’re still a young team, but we’re a year older,” Jackson said. “We played in some pretty good environments last year. It’ll be a little bit of culture shock for some of the younger guys, maybe. This isn’t going to be any different than playing in North Dakota, or the regionals in New Hampshire.
“We’ve got to be prepared to handle the crowd and the pressure and let’s see how much we’ve grown in a year.”
The Irish open their quest for the program’s first-ever national championship Friday and Saturday night in Minnesota-Duluth’s AMSOIL Arena. Both games will begin at 7:07 p.m.
Contact Allan Joseph at [email protected]