Notre Dame Hockey - The Frozen Four

DENVER – The Notre Dame hockey team is set to enter the final weekend of an historic two-year ride, with the Irish impressively two wins away from claiming the program's first national title. If they can complete that challenging task it would simply add more firsts to the program's rapidly-expanding trophy case.

In a span of only 15 months, Notre Dame hockey has risen to number one in the national polls (Feb. 5, 2007), won the regular-season title in the grueling Central Collegiate Hockey Association ('07), followed up by raising the CCHA Tournament trophy (also in '07), and advanced to the NCAA Frozen Four ('08). All of those accomplishments were unprecedented in the nearly 40-year modern era of Notre Dame hockey, which returned to varsity status in the late 1960s.

"Our goal is to try to be in position as some of the premier programs in the country," says third-year Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson, the winningest active coach in Division I hockey whose career highlights include guiding Lake Superior State to NCAA titles in 1992 and '94.

"All I ask our guys to do is put ourselves in a position to get to Detroit (for the CCHA semifinals), to the (NCAA) Tournament. If we do that and things go in the right direction, you can win a championship."

Prior to the start of the 16-team NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame (26-15-4) went just 3-5-2 in its previous 10 games. The Irish then anxiously watched the NCAA Selection Show on Sunday, Feb. 23, and sprung from their couches when Notre Dame's name was announced. The team was sent to Colorado Springs for the first weekend of NCAA play (March 28-30) and the Irish caught lightning in a bottle, knocking off the site's top seed New Hampshire (7-3) before using a pair of late goals to top CCHA foe – and defending NCAA champ – Michigan State, 3-1. It marked the first time that a fourth seed has advanced to the Frozen Four, since the current 16-team format was adopted in 2003.

"Last year, it seemed like we just cruised through the season and nothing went wrong," says team captain Mark Van Guilder. "I don't think we realized how lucky we were to be in the NCA Tournament. It maybe clicked in this year when we struggled in the second half and were on the bubble.

"We realized how lucky we were to be there and be given that chance. We knew we had a good team and showed flashes. We wanted to take advantage of that this year."

Thursday's NCAA semifinal action at the Pepsi Center (home to the NHL's Colorado Avalanche) will begin at 4:00 local time, when the "other ND" (North Dakota; 28-10-4) faces off with Boston College (23-11-8). The Irish and Wolverines (33-5-4) then will take the ice, with Notre Dame looking to avenge a pair of losses (2-3, 1-5) in the only meetings between the longtime rivals this season.

Here's a rundown of some of the facts, figures and top story lines heading into Thursday's game (be sure to check Irish Eyes for continuing Frozen Four coverage, including several feature stories in the upcoming May issue of Irish Eyes magazine).

BACK-TO-BACK – Notre Dame has advanced to the NCAAs three times in its history, including a quarterfinal appearance in 2007 (when the Irish beat Alabama-Huntsville, 3-2, but lost a 2-1 game to Michigan State).

ELITE CROWD – The other three teams at the 2008 Frozen Four have combined to make 82 NCAA Tournament appearances (UM 31, BC 28, UND 23) and have reached the national semifinals round 62 times between them UM 23, BC 21, UND 18). Those three teams also have combined to win 18 NCAA titles, led by nine from Michigan and seven by North Dakota.

LONGTIME RIVALS – Michigan holds a 65-44-5 edge in a hockey series with Notre Dame that dates back tot he 1921-22 season. The Wolverines hold a narrow 8-6 edge over the Irish in conference postseason games (WCHA or CCHA), but Notre Dame edge Michigan in the 2007 CCHA title game, 2-1.ND also beat UM twice during the 2006-07 regular season but the Wolverines won both meetings this season – 3-2 at Yost Ice Arena and 5-1 at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Notre Dame jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first meeting, only to see homestanding Michigan rally for the victory (capped by a decisive goal with 0:21 left to play).

Jackson – whose Lake Superior teams were 3-0 in NCAA semifinal games during the early 1990s – cites several factors when facing a league rival in the pressure cooker of the NCAA semifinals.

"There is some familiarity and we played them tough at Yost and the next night at the Palace was sort of a wacky game for us, one of the games that set us on our heels," he says. "We do have an ides of some of the things that they do well and we know their personnel well. It's just a matter of playing your best hockey at the most important part of the year, against conceivably the best team in the country."

Guilder and his Irish teammates know the challenge that awaits them, but the players appear to have taken several positives from their earlier two-game series with the Wolverines.

"We played such a good road game at Yost. We got up early and we defended well. We did a lot of things well that we had planned on going into the game," says the Irish team captain, who has yet to miss a game while setting the Notre Dame record for career games played (161).

"Losses hurt when you execute well, but a couple of mistakes cost you the game. So we can bring a lot of confidence from that series. We did a lot of things well, but we can also learn from the mistakes we made in the last minute. We can carry some confidence with us from that series."

FRIEND OR FOE? – Notre Dame rookie defenseman Ian Cole grew up in the shadow of Michigan's famed Yost Ice Arena, watching the winged helmets skate by en route to collecting several of the team's nine national titles. The lifelong Ann Arbor resident even trained in his hometown with the U.S. Under-18 National Team program, before joining Notre Dame in the fall of '07 (a few months after being drafted 18th overall by the St. Louis Blues, who still maintain the rights to the talented blueliner).

"I grew up being a huge Michigan fan, but now I'm a Notre Dame fan through and through," says Cole. " It definitely will be exciting playing the team that I grew up watching."

Cole has received several text-messages from some of his friends and former teammates on the Michigan squad - "they are making predictions already, but I guess we will see," he says.

"We owe them, we had them down in the first game but they came back and won. It's an opportunity to show we are a top team in the country.

"I love the school here at Notre Dame and the campus is unbelievable. Notre Dame really had something special to it and it was coach Jackson's vision that really got me excited about coming here to play for the Irish."

FACING NUMBER ONE – Thursday's showdown will mark the fifth time this season that the Irish have battled the nation's top-ranked team, with an earlier split versus the Miami RedHawks (2-1, 1-3) and the pair of losses to Michigan (2-3, 1-5). Prior to the loss to Miami, Notre Dame had won four straight games versus teams that were ranked number one. The Irish have knocked off top-ranked teams 10 times in the program's history.

CONTROLLING PORTER – Michigan's talented roster is headlined by the likes of junior goaltender Billy Sauer (29-4-3, 1.94 GAA, .925 save pct.) and forward Chad Kolarik (28 goals, 25 assists), but the star power clearly rests on the stick of Kolarik's linemate and fellow senior Kevin Porter. Considered one of the frontrunners for the Hobey Baker Award (national player of the year), Porter is on the verge of a 30-30 season (32G-28A) and has the all-around talent to quickly take over a game.

Members of the Notre Dame team who were present at Wednesday's pre-tournament press conference were asked to complete the following question: "How do you stop Kevin Porter?"

Senior defenseman Brock Sheahan opted to highlight positioning and awareness as key factors in slowing down Porter's production. "Just making sure you're on him all the time," says Sheahan. "I've played against him a lot the last three years, so if you give him any space, he'll take advantage of it."

Van Guilder, ever the team-focused captain, placed the responsibility on every Irish skater who is on the ice. "I think it basically takes all five guys," he says. "It takes three forwards coming back hard back-checking, a whole group of five to stop that whole line. Just being aware in our defensive zone when they've got the puck, and being aware of where (Porter) is when he's doesn't have the puck."

BLOWING BUBBLES – Notre Dame's 2-1 loss to Ferris State on March 14 left the Irish hopes for a return to the NCAAs in serious doubt. The team was one loss away from likely seeing its postseason come to an end, but instead Notre Dame rallied for a pair of wins over FSU (6-3, 2-1) to take that best-of-3 series at the Joyce Center. The next weekend brought a pair of 2-1 losses for the Irish – versus 3rd-ranked Miami of Ohio (semifinals) and Northern Michigan (3rd-place game) – at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, setting up a sleepless night leading up to the Sunday selection show. Despite going only 3-5-2 prior to the NCAAs, Notre Dame received one of 16 spots in the NCAAs and went on to make the most of its opportunity.

"(After the loss to Northern Michigan), we weren't too sure what would happen," recalls Van Guilder. "We wanted to stay ready in case we got a chance. We were thrilled to get a second chance when we saw our name get called. Saturday night was pretty tough, not knowing if our season was over. It gave us new life when we saw our name up there on Sunday."

OFFENSIVE WAKEUP CALL – Notre Dame's slump in the second half of the season included an 11-week stretch (Jan, 4-March 22) in which the Irish averaged only 2.05 goals per game (43G in 21 GP). The team's final three games in the CCHA Tournament produced even lower offensive production, with four goals in that three-game span. Fast forward to World Arena in Colorado Springs, where the Irish erupted for 10 combined goals while taking on one of the nation's top teams (New Hampshire) and always stingy Michigan State. That accomplishment was all the more noteworthy considering the absence of leading scorer Erik Condra (15G-23A), a junior who went down with a knee injury midway through the CCHA playoffs. Sophomore right wing Ryan Thang (17G-13A) and centerman Van Guilder (12G-17A) now rate as the team's top healthy scorers, followed by the young duo of freshman center Ben Ryan (10G-16A) and sophomore defenseman Kyle Lawson (5G-20A).

A PEARCING PRESENCE – Junior goaltender Jordan Pearce recently was named Notre Dame's team MVP and received the team's scholar-athlete award, due to his strong work in the classroom while tackling a challenging double major of anthropology and pre-professional studies. Pearce already has posted a 4.0 semester GPA at Notre Dame (one of 21 times in the past 11 years that an Irish hockey played has turned in a 4.0 term) and this season has added impressive numbers on the ice, with a 1.97 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. The Anchorage, Alaska, native has logged and ND-record 2,434 minutes in the nets this season, trailing only BC's John Muse, MSU's Jeff Lerg and North Dakota's J.P. Lamoureaux among the national leaders.

Notre Dame turned to its focus to defense in the second half of the season, helping to ride out the offensive dry spell. The top defensive tandem of Sheahan and freshman Teddy Ruth (the team's rookie of the year) combined with Pearce to lead the way.

"Going through a lot of turmoil in the second half probably helped us get a little bit stronger and persevere through that game with UNH,: says Jackson. "We knew Michigan State game was going to be difficult with the defensive style they play exceptionally well. It was going to be difficult to score goals and we were fortunate to respond late in the game."

Pearce – who totaled only 622 combined minutes in his previous two seasons (while backing up departed All-American David Brown) – has gone without significant recognition this season, despite leading the CCHA in goals-against average. "I don't think that bothers him much, it motivates him more than anything," says team captain Van Guilder, in defense of the Irish netminder. "Jordan has been huge for us and you could see his confidence grow as the year has gone by.

"You can see it not only on the ice, but also off the ice. He's a lot more vocal this year and is having a lot of fun. This team is so confident in him and his ability, and that's all that really matters to him."

Pearce's coach claims he has not been surprised by his goaltender's success. "I think that how he approached his role the last two years playing behind David Brown allowed him to be able to come in and flourish," says Jackson. "He could have complained or quit or done a lot of things - but he stuck by what he was here for and that's why I felt I had to give him the first opportunity to be the number one guy."

THE BIG STAGE – Despite making the first Frozen Four appearance in the history of the program, the Notre Dame players have been well-prepared for playing in front of a big crowd.

"We have tried to prepare our team for this over the past two year," says Jackson "That's one of the reasons why we started the tournament down in Tampa Bay and getting to Joe Louis Arena and playing in front of those type of crowds.

"And, let's face facts, there is probably no more serious crowd than playing at Yost Ice Arena. We've tried to make our team play in these types of events and venues in preparation for playing on the big stage. The games we have had in the bigger arenas will help us overcome nervousness. There's always going to be some, but you want it to be a positive nervousness and not one that 's going to create mistakes."

ELEVATING CONCERNS? - Jackson and his players similarly don't appear overly concerned about playing in the lofty elevation of the Mile High City. The Irish also said that they don't expect to have any sort of carryover advantage from two weeks ago, after playing their first two NCAA Tournament games at a similar altitude (in Colorado Springs).

"Realistically, the elevation issue if really overblown," says Jackson. "There are studies that have been done on elevation and how it impacts performance. And it has more of an impact the longer you are there. The longer you are there, until you get to that period of time where you get accustomed to it.

"The impact sometime is in fatigue away from the rink. It creates a restful sleep and there are some nutrition and hydration things that our trainers are aware of. (Most don't) feel the effects of it until they get to that 3-4-5 day period and then it wears off after that."

Adds Van Guilder: "(The altitude) kind of plays mind games with you but I didn't' even notice it in the first game (in Colorado Springs). In the second game, I was a little bit more tired but it was the second game in two nights. I think it's a mental thing more than anything else."

SENIOR SENDOFF – Notre Dame's five current seniors had an ominous beginning to their college hockey careers, as members of a team that managed to win only five of its 38 games (with six ties) in the 2004-05 season. The Irish managed a 13-19-4 mark in 2005-06, followed by a record-setting campaign in 2006-07 (32-7-3) and more history making this season.

In addition to Van Guilder and Sheahan, the other members of the senior class include defenseman Dan VeNard and right wings Evan Rankin and and Brian D'Arcy.

"It's been pretty unbelievable. I just wanted to win after only wining five games - it was such a tough year, with hockey and school," says Van Guilder.

"I just wanted to start winning some games and the Frozen Four was furthest from my mind. When coach Jackson arrived, a lot of confidence arrived with him. This class is so proud of how we've been able to bring this program to where it is now."

Pete LaFleur – currently the public relations director at Geneva Glen Camp, in Indian Hills, Colo. (near Denver) – served the past 11 years as an assistant sports information director at Notre Dame, including several seasons as the hockey program's SID. He will be writing periodically for Irish Eyes magazine and website, with some upcoming IE magazine feature stories on the Notre Dame hockey program. Top Stories