Thursday, April 10, 2008

Irish On Ice

Even though March turned out to be the cruelest month for Notre Dame basketball, the Irish hockey team completed a stunning transformation in a matter of days during the stretch drive of their postseason. After following up last year's run to the final eight of the NCAA Tournament (having been the tourney's overall #1 seed) with a 17-4 start, the Irish came back from winter break and couldn't find the net or close out a tight game. Remind you of anyone?

I kid, I kid. But there's no understating how much the Irish were struggling in the closing six weeks of the season, going 9-11-4. The stretch included head-scratching losses to Northern & Western Michigan plus Alaska-Fairbanks and Ferris State, four games against Michigan State and Ohio State that yielded just two points for the Irish in the standings, and a 3-2 loss in the final minute at Michigan...tonight's opponent for the Irish in their first ever appearance in the Frozen Four. Jeff Jackson's squad reached tonight's primetime stage the hard way, as literally the last team into the tournament after their late-season swoon (which was punctuated by allowing a game-tying goal with two seconds left to #3 Miami of Ohio in the conference semis, a game they ultimately lost in overtime). Sent to Colorado Springs as the four-seed, the Irish finally found their scoring touch in a 7-3 rout over #1 seed (third overall) New Hampshire and then foiling CCHA nemesis Michigan State 3-1; payback for last season's loss to the Spartans in the NCAA regionals. What's even more impressive was that the ten-goal outburst came without the services of the team's leading scorer, Erik Condra, who tore his ACL during the second round of the conference tournament.

It certainly doesn't get the hype of their gridiron counterparts, but ND-Michigan is a long-standing and fiercely competitive hockey rivalry, with tonight's meeting being the 115th all-time. Michigan holds a 65-44-5 edge and has won 7 of the 9 contests played on neutral ice. This will be the first time the two schools have met in the NCAAs, but their last postseason tilt, the 2007 CCHA title game, was won by the Irish 2-1.

Seeing as how they play in one of the most substandard facilities in all of collegiate sport (not just hockey), what Jackson has done in just three seasons is nothing short of astounding. He took over a program that won only five games in the '04-'05 season and reached the #1 ranking less than two years later. Now Jackson has a chance to add a third national title to his resume (he won the first two in the early '90s at Lake Superior State) and the Irish can get one step closer by beating Michigan. Even for ND fans who don't know much about hockey, everybody can get behind a good thrashing of the Wolverines.

Oh, and if you needed a reason besides deep-seeded animosity to pull for the Irish tonight, ESPN has the story of Irish center Christian Hanson, son of Dave Hanson, better known as Jack Hanson in the Paul Newman classic Slap Shot:

Those who prefer literature can read up on Christian's family ties in today's Chicago Tribune. Enjoy tonight's game (9 ET on ESPN2)...Go Irish.

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