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Notre Dame reaches Frozen Four

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

By TOM COYNE

AP Sports Writer

SOUTH BEND -- Turmoil has been good for Notre Dame's hockey team.

A year ago the Fighting Irish sailed through their best season ever. They were ranked No. 1 for the first time, set a school record with 32 wins and won the Central Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season and tournament titles for the first time. But they fell a victory shy of their first Frozen Four appearance.

The Irish (26-15-4) got off to a strong start again this season, going 16-4 through their first 20 games, including winning nine straight at the end of the streak. But after a two week break for finals and Christmas, the Irish slumped.

They gave up three power-play goals as Massachusetts rallied to beat the Irish. They lost 3-1 to Michigan State when the Spartans scored twice in the final two minutes. Michigan scored with 20 seconds left to beat the Irish. Miami scored with 3 seconds left to tie the Irish in the CCHA tournament semifinal, then won in overtime.

The Irish went 8-11-4 in their final 23 games before the NCAA tournament, including splitting a two-game series to last-place Western Michigan and a loss and a tie to Ohio State, which finished second-to-last. It might have been the best thing for the Irish.

"I think last year it seemed like we cruised through the season and nothing ever went wrong," captain Mark Van Guilder said. "I don't think we realized how lucky we were even to be in the NCAA tournament. Maybe it kind of clicked in this year when we went through the struggles that we did and were right on the bubble. I think we realized how big of a deal it is and how lucky we were to be there."

After a pair of upset victories over New Hampshire and Michigan State, the Irish became the first No. 4 seed to advance to the Frozen Four. They will play Michigan (33-5-4) April 10 in Denver. Boston College (23-11-8) and North Dakota (28-10-4) meet in the other semifinal game.

Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said the problem with the Irish in the second half of the season was that some players lost some confidence and it spread.

"It impacted our power play. It impacted our five-on-five play," he said.

After averaging 3.55 goals through the first 20 games -- scoring at least four goals in 13 games -- the Irish averaged just 2.2 goals through their next 23 games. They scored at least four goals in just three of those games.

"More recently we've started to see a resurgence in some guys that were successful before Christmas and starting to get some confidence back," Jackson said.

That's despite losing leading scorer Erik Condra (15 goals, 23 assists) to a left knee injury in the first round of the CCHA tournament.

For Van Guilder, who feared Notre Dame's season was over when they lost to Northern Michigan in the CCHA consolation game, it's a great finish to his collegiate career after winning just five games his freshman season.

"It's been pretty crazy where we've come in four years," he said.

It's amazing what a little turmoil can do.



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