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Gans: Players must focus on critical series but enjoy experience (Feb. 15)

Sam Gans | Friday, February 15, 2013

Sunday’s matchup against No. 3 Miami will be the biggest regular-season game No. 12 Notre Dame’s players compete in while wearing an Irish jersey.

It seemed likely that would be the case when Notre Dame’s participation in the Hockey City Classic at Soldier Field in Chicago was made official in July. Sunday marks the first outdoor game for the Irish in 45 years as a varsity program, and will be played in a stadium that seats more than 60,000 people. Though some Irish players could play outdoors again – either in future years at Notre Dame or professionally – this will be the only opportunity for many since they laced up their skates on local frozen ponds as boys.

There will be – and has been – a lot of hype and attention paid to Sunday due solely to the novelty an outdoor game provides.

But the game in Soldier Field, it’s important to remember, is not some exhibition or showcase event for fun. It’s a game between two rivals that counts. A lot.

Sunday will be the second game of the weekend for Miami and Notre Dame. The two teams meet in Oxford, Ohio, on Friday, before heading to Chicago to practice Saturday in preparation for Sunday’s game.

Both games are huge for Notre Dame. The Irish currently sit third in the CCHA behind Western Michigan and Miami, trailing the Broncos and RedHawks by two points and three points, respectively, with six games remaining. Notre Dame is also one of five teams tied for 12th in the PairWise rankings. The five conference champions and top 11 at-large teams from the PairWise at the end of the season make up the NCAA tournament field.

Should Notre Dame win Friday, a win Sunday would give the Irish control of their CCHA fate with two games against the Broncos the following week, and put Notre Dame in great position to make the NCAA tournament. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a loss Friday coupled with a loss Sunday would all but eliminate the Irish from the CCHA title race and be devastating to their postseason hopes.

That’s the incredible thing about Sunday’s game. Yes, there is the buzz, excitement and natural elements that come into play with an outdoor game. But take all that away – imagine Sunday’s game was at the Compton Family Ice Arena or Steve Cady Arena and not Soldier Field – and the first sentence of this column might still be true.

Irish players and coach Jeff Jackson alike are insistent they are solely focused on Friday’s game, which is the way it should be, even if fans and the media are not. In the tangible sense, Friday’s game counts the same as Sunday’s. It could be the contest that Notre Dame looks back on in March as making the difference in its season, either positively or negatively.

Friday’s game will pass, however, and when it does, it will be on to Chicago. The game in Soldier Field will be particularly meaningful to the seven Illinois natives on the Irish roster – many of whom grew up fans of the Chicago Bears – but it will also provide nostalgia for players throughout the Irish roster. It will not be easy to stay focused on the game and avoid the hoopla that surrounds it.

But that’s what senior defenseman Sam Calabrese, who hails from Chicago suburb  Park Ridge, Ill., said the Irish will try to do.

“We can really practice and take it all in Saturday, and hopefully get all the jitters out and get the neatness of the experience out on Saturday,” Calabrese said. “Hopefully, Sunday will be all business.”

Ultimately, Calabrese is correct that what truly matters Sunday is whether the Irish win or lose, especially based on Notre Dame’s positioning both in the CCHA standings and nationally. But it would also be a mistake for the players to not fully embrace this potentially once-in-a-lifetime event. Practicing outdoors Saturday in Soldier Field might be a cool experience, but it will pale in comparison to the game Sunday in front of a packed crowd against a top-notch opponent.

That is the balance the Irish should attempt to find:  there should be enough focus to accomplish their goal, but enough looseness that the moment does not completely pass them by.

If they can find that balance, they’ll enjoy Sunday’s game – both the experience, but more importantly to Calabrese and the rest of the Irish – the result.

Contact Sam Gans at [email protected] 
   The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.