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Irish face Michigan Tech in first round of NCAA tournament

| Friday, March 23, 2018

After winning the Big Ten championship title Saturday, the top-seeded Irish will head to Bridgeport, Connecticut, this Friday to take on fourth-seeded Michigan Tech in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament.

Notre Dame (25-9-2, 17-6-1 Big Ten) heads into the tournament as the No. 2 squad in the country and the top seed in the East region of the tournament. Joining the Irish and Huskies in the East are Providence and Clarkson.

Heading into the weekend, Irish head coach Jeff Jackson is aware of the tournament’s fickle nature and said he is thrilled to have the opportunity to win a national title.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Senior Irish forward Jake Evans handles the puck during Notre Dame’s 5-1 loss to Ohio State on Feb. 10 at Purcell Pavilion. No. 1 seed Notre Dame looks to make a second straight Frozen Four run in the 2018 NCAA tournament.

“Well hey, when you get to the NCAA tournament, first of all it’s a great accomplishment for these guys,” Jackson said. “Most importantly, we’ve got to recognize that in this tournament anything can happen — last year we were a No. 4 seed and knocked off the top seed. So, that’s how close it is. It’s like the Sweet 16 in basketball — if you just pick the top 16 teams in basketball you know how tough the tournament would start. And that’s what college hockey is all about. It’ll be a big challenge for us, but these guys have been resilient, and I think all year long we’ve respected our opponent and that’ll be the same case this weekend.”

As the team realized in the Big Ten title game, when it gets this late in the season the competition is “magnified,” and coach Jackson emphasized how important every aspect of the game is during tournament time.

“You can never take anything for granted,” Jackson said. “Everything gets magnified when you get to the NCAA tournament. [Saturday night] was a great example of the magnification of faceoffs, because the last shift of the game we lost a faceoff that could have ended up in our net and Cale [Morris] made the save. And then [off a later faceoff] we scored the game-winning goal. So things like that are magnified in a big way when you get to the NCAA tournament.”

The Irish have a challenging opponent ahead of them in the Huskies (22-16-5, 12-11-5 WCHA). Coach Jackson has known Michigan Tech’s head coach Joe Shawhan for a while now, and said he knows Shawhan’s team is very skilled.

“He’s a really good coach. I was glad to see Joe get that job out there,” Jackson said. “He was on one of my first teams when I was an assistant coach at Lake Superior State — he was one of our goaltenders. … I’m glad to see he’s finally gotten his shot to be a head coach in college hockey, and he’s obviously shown his worth this past year at Michigan Tech. What he’s accomplished is a pretty special thing because I don’t think people were expecting a lot out of that team once Mel Pearson left. But I knew when they hired Joe, that wasn’t going to be the case. And he’s obviously proved that. They’ll be an older team, and I’m sure they’re going to be a tough team to play against. They always are.”

This season marks the 10th NCAA tournament appearance for the Irish, including last year’s effort in which the squad reached the Frozen Four, where their run was ended at the hands of eventual national champion Denver. Senior captain Jake Evans said the team has gotten over last year’s heartbreak, but it still serves to motivate them in this year’s effort.

“I think we’ve sort of forgot about [last year], but it’s always in the back of our heads how we want another shot at that opportunity and to make it to that spot,” Evans said. “We’re doing a good job so far. We’re setting ourselves up nicely. But we’ve got to focus on one game at a time, and it’s going to be an absolute battle this Friday. So we’re ready for it. One day, one game at a time.”

In the end, Jackson is clear that he wants his squad to focus on the process, one game at a time, without dwelling on the results too much.

“We can’t focus on the result, we have to focus on the process,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be about having a good week of practice and then being prepared to play on Friday. That’s the only game that matters right now. You’re in one-and-done season right now, and we have to embrace that. We have to just focus on the one game that we have. We’ll worry about what happens after that, but right now it’s just about Friday.”

The puck will drop Friday at 3 p.m. in Bridgeport at Webster Bank Arena.

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