Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Third Time is a Charm for Irish Icers: Frozen Four Preview

As the Irish and Wolverines face off for the third time this season, here is the skinny on the second national semifinal contest in Denver:

What You Need to Know:
The Wolverines have simply been the best team in the nation all season long and enter this championship weekend as the prohibitive favorite. It's been 10 years since the Wolverines last won a national championship (1998 in Boston), which was also the last time they won a game at the Frozen Four. They were bounced in the semifinals of three straight Frozen Fours in 2001, 2002, and 2003.

By now, you all know the Fighting Irish are the new kids on the Frozen Four block. How new? Well, this is Notre Dame's first Frozen Four appearance ever. By comparison, the three other teams in this year's field — Boston College, Michigan, and North Dakota — have combined for 62 trips to the Frozen Four. And 2008 marked the school's third NCAA tournament appearance, compared to a combined 82 national playoff appearances for the Eagles, Wolverines, and Fighting Sioux.

Edge: Michigan

Chad Kolarik is one of two senior leaders among the forwards for Michigan and is a perfect sidekick for Kevin Porter on Michigan's top line. He has big-game ability, evidenced by a pair of four-goal performances this season at Western Michigan and home against Lake Superior State. He started Michigan's postseason run with a hat trick in the CCHA quarterfinals against Nebraska-Omaha and then had five assists on five Wolverine goals in the NCAA Regional win over Niagara.

Would you believe the Fighting Irish player who may make the biggest impact is a senior defenseman who’s scored 32 points in 159 career games? You should, because whenever the opposition rolls its top line out for a shift, there's a strong chance they’ll have to deal with Brock Sheahan. The Lethbridge, Alberta native wasn’t among the three finalists for CCHA Defensive Defenseman of the Year, but he should’ve been. Plus-minus numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, for sure, but Sheahan leads the Irish at plus-23; he was plus-14 in conference games. He was named to the All-NCAA West Regional team for his efforts in Colorado Springs, including an assist and a plus-3 showing against New Hampshire.

Edge: Notre Dame

Achilles Heel:
An observation uttered during the most recent game was that "Michigan is the only team in the tournament without an Achilles Heel" and it's absolutely true. Skeptics at one point would have pointed at inconsistent goaltending in big games through the first two years of Billy Sauer's career but he's answered all questions this season with 30 wins and a 10-3-2 record in games against teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

Perhaps that heading should read Achilles Knee, because a knee injury is what's kept junior forward Erik Condra, Notre Dame's leading scorer in each of the last three seasons, on the shelf since a 2-1 win over Ferris State in the rubber match of the Fighting Irish's best-of-three CCHA quarterfinal series March 16. Though Notre Dame emerged from its scoring slump in the NCAA West Regional two weekends ago, Condra's playmaking skill — as the right wing on a line with sophomores Kevin Deeth and Ryan Thang, he racked up a team-high 23 assists — and power-play prowess will be missed.

Edge: Michigan

It's probably not the traditional view, to name the nation's best player as an overachiever, but it's meant as an absolutely huge compliment to Kevin Porter. The likely Hobey Baker winner gets the most out of his natural ability. He's not blessed with blazing speed, intimidating size and strength, or drop-your-jaw skill. He makes up for it with hockey sense, hard work, and outstanding two-way play.

As the team captain with 97 career points to his credit, Mark Van Guilder has done more than find his way into the lineup, his goal upon joining the Fighting Irish program as a walk-on in 2004-05. After a serviceable three-goal, eight-point effort in 38 games as a freshman, Van Guilder blossomed, scoring 26 points as a sophomore and 34 points (including 18 goals) as a junior. His output has dipped to 29 points this season, but the Roseville, Minn., product had arguably the best weekend of his college career in Colorado Springs two weekends ago, earning NCAA West Regional Most Outstanding Player honors after scoring a goal and three assists in wins against New Hampshire and Michigan State. Rarely, if ever, is Van Guilder the most talented player on the ice, but also rare are the occasions in which he's outworked or outsmarted.

Edge: Even

Secret Weapon:
Michigan's defense corps is led by junior Mark Mitera, an All-America candidate and INCH's Defenseman of the Year. The rest of the group is comprised of freshmen and sophomores and they have done a nice job of limiting scoring chances against and playing a simple game that includes moving the puck out of its end quickly and clearing rebounds in front of goalie Billy Sauer.

It's hard to think of a guy who ranks sixth in the nation with a 1.95 goals against average and someone who's just the fourth goaltender in school history to record 20 wins in a season as a secret weapon. But while you've heard chatter about the veteran (Lamoureux), the rookie (Muse), and the breakout goalie (Sauer), you don't hear many people talking about junior Jordan Pearce. His statistics in his first season as starter are indeed impressive — he's 22-14-4 with a .917 save percentage — but it's his play over the last two months that is even more remarkable. In 17 straight starts since Jan. 25, the Anchorage native is 8-6-3 with a 1.86 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. The Fighting Irish averaged a shade better than two goals per contest during that span.

Edge: Notre Dame

It's no longer a surprise for Michigan to see some of its players leave the team for a few weeks in the middle of the season to play at the World Junior Championship tournament, but it is surprising when a player laces up the skates for Sweden at that event. Left wing Carl Hagelin was that player this season, and earned a silver medal for that team at the event. In the college ranks, the speedster has 20 points on 10 goals and 10 assists.

The Fighting Irish aren’t known for their wheels, but they do boast a roster full of quick learners, namely freshman forward Ben Ryan and rookie blueliner Ian Cole. Ryan, who grew up about 15 minutes from Ann Arbor in Brighton, Mich., has been Notre Dame’s steadiest offensive performer as of late, scoring at least one point in seven of the team’s last eight games. Cole, an Ann Arbor native, leads Fighting Irish defensemen with eight goals. He’s scored 12 of his 18 points in Notre Dame’s last 16 games.

Edge: Notre Dame

Aaron Palushaj is one of Michigan's very talented freshman forwards and finds himself on the top power-play unit. He's got great hands, great vision, and makes the passes that set up great scoring chances for the likes of Porter, Kolarik, and Max Pacioretty. At even strength, he plays on an all-freshman line with Matt Rust and Carl Hagelin. Pacioretty is another very skilled player. Don't be fooled by his big frame and constant residence in front of the net. His hands are excellent, and a big reason for his 15 goals this year.

After enduring a mid-season slump during which he scored just one goal and two points in 13 games between Dec. 8-Feb. 9, sophomore defenseman Kyle Lawson has played the style of hockey lately that makes him one of the most versatile rearguards in the nation and Notre Dame’s most dangerous scoring threat from the blue line. Lawson, an assistant captain on the U.S. team that won a bronze medal at the 2007 World Junior Championship, is finishing the year in much the same way he started — he scored 14 points in his first 19 games, and has nine points in his last 11 appearances.

Edge: Michigan

Freshman forward Matt Rust plays an in-your-face style and is one of the toughest players on the ice for the Wolverines. His 69 penalty minutes leads Michigan, but that's not what makes him gritty. He broke a bone in his leg late in the season and only missed one weekend, the CCHA quarterfinal series versus Nebraska-Omaha.

Is it possible for a tandem from a Catholic university to be considered gritty if one of the guys is named Christian? That question aside, the point is that going up against forwards Garrett Regan and Christian Hanson is like climbing a barbed-wire fence — you might make it to the other side, but you’ll have a few souvenirs to remember the trip. Hanson is a behemoth at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds who’s good in the tight spaces around the cage as evidenced by his 13 goals, four of which have come in Notre Dame’s last three games. Regan, who scored 26 points last season but has just 13 points this year, is a feisty, 5-foot-11, 200-pound fireplug.

Edge: Notre Dame

Of its nine national championships, Michigan won six in Colorado Springs and one in Denver. Of course, Colorado was still a territory back then.

The Fighting Irish have won four CCHA and NCAA playoff games in the last three weeks after winning a total of six games over the final two months of the regular season. Notre Dame will keep their current streak alive as the Irish take down the #1 overall seed Michigan out of the National Championship game.

ND 4 UM 2

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