Hockey: Irish begin NCAA tourney in Toledo
Peter Steiner | Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Less than a week after securing the last-ever CCHA championship, Notre Dame will begin its quest for the ultimate prize – the NCAA championship – Saturday in Toledo, Ohio, against St. Cloud State.
The Irish (25-12-3) earned the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional and will face the Huskies (23-15-1) in the opening regional game. With a victory, the Irish would face either No. 2-seed Miami or No. 3-seed Minnesota State.
“To be in the tournament as a No. 1 seed is pretty special, but at the same time, there’s a lot of work to be done,” Irish junior captain and center Anders Lee said. “St. Cloud State, Miami and [Minnesota State] Mankato are all great teams. For us to get to the Frozen Four, it’s going to be a tough road.”
Coached by Bob Motzko, St. Cloud State will provide a tough first obstacle for the Irish, as the Huskies won the WCHA regular season title with a conference record of 18-9-1. Huskies senior forward Drew LeBlanc leads St. Cloud State’s offense with 50 points on the year, tied for fifth in the nation, while Huskies sophomore Ryan Faragher minds the net with a 2.29 goals against average.
“I’ve heard throughout the year they were kind of an unheralded team and all of the sudden, they ended up winning the WCHA,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “Everything I know about them is that Bob Motzko’s teams compete hard and they’re well coached. … But at this point in the season, it’s going to be more about us and how we play.”
Notre Dame enters the NCAA tournament on a nine-game unbeaten streak, and the Irish allowed just two total goals to Michigan and Ohio State in the CCHA championship games while outshooting the Wolverines, 33-21, and the Buckeyes, 44-17.
The team’s recent success stands in stark contrast to the 2-6-0 record the Irish posted in January, and Lee said he believes his team is peaking at the opportune time.
“You always talk about trying to peak at the right time, trying to play your best hockey at the right time and the last 10 or so games, we’ve been finding our groove and that’s been evident with our success,” Lee said. “The best thing we can do is to work at our game and keep working hard in a way that continues that kind of success.”
Irish junior goaltender Steven Summerhays has been a large contributor to the stout Irish defense over the last month, boasting a .946 save percentage in the CCHA conference tournament. While the Alaska native continues to make big saves, he said the defense has also helped prevent opponents from having any quality scoring opportunities.
“With the back pressure we had and the defensive corps playing the way they did, we didn’t give up too many odd-man rushes and quality scoring chances, so that made my job pretty easy [last] weekend,” Summerhays said. “[Last weekend was] the best two games we’ve played together back-to-back in a long time.”
The last time the Irish played in the NCAA tournament was in 2011 when they advanced to the Frozen Four as a No. 3 seed but lost to eventual-champion Minnesota-Duluth, 4-3, in the semifinals. Although the Irish earned a No. 1 seed in the 2009 NCAA tournament, they lost in the first round to Bemidji State, 5-1.
While the Irish won the last ever CCHA championship, Jackson said an NCAA championship stands as the final goal for the program.
“When I started here, the objective was to win championships for the program, and not just league championships, we want to win national championships,” Jackson said. “We’ve been a good team over the several years, but until we win that ultimate prize, I don’t know if we can take that next step as a program.”
The Irish will face St. Cloud State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament at 1:30 p.m. in Toledo, Ohio, on Saturday.
Contact Peter Steiner at [email protected]