Irish Hockey: Previewing the NCAA Playoffs

"Hark to the cheering songs rising high, Hark to the roar as her ranks go skating by..."

Notre Dame's march to the Frozen Four begins Saturday night in St. Paul. But first, they have to avenge last year's early exit at the hands of St. Cloud State.

On February 7, 2014, the Fighting Irish hockey team was in dire straits. Notre Dame had just staged a furious comeback attempt against the Maine Black Bears, but a disallowed last-minute goal resulted in a crushing 2-1 defeat. Sitting at 4-9-1 in Hockey East, 15-12-1 overall, and #20 in the polls, ND's postseason picture was looking pretty bleak; even Coach Jeff Jackson admitted that the Irish were basically in a postseason-esque do-or-die situation.

Fast-forward several weeks, and things looked quite a bit different. Aided largely by Steven Summerhays' 231-minute shutout streak, the Irish posted a white-hot 8-2-1 stretch that included a stunning series upset over then-#1 Boston College. This late-season desperation surge was good enough to earn the Irish the #2 seed in the West Regional (along with Minnesota, St. Cloud State, and Robert Morris) and #9 seed overall. This Notre Dame squad heads to St. Paul with the knowledge that they can beat anyone in the country...but before they can start looking ahead, first they have some unfinished business to take care of.

(2) Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. (3) St. Cloud State Huskies

WEST REGIONAL SEMIFINALS

Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN

Puck drop: 9:00 P.M. EST on Saturday, March 27

TV/Radio: ESPNU/WatchESPN (streaming video), WatchND (audio only)

Irish fans remember all too well what happened last time these two teams clashed on the ice. In the first round of last year's NCAA playoffs, Notre Dame came in as a #1 seed in the Midwest Regional. However, the Irish were doomed by an uncharacteristic parade to the penalty box, which led to SCSU going 2-for-7 on the power play and gliding to a commanding 5-1 win, thus ending ND's postseason campaign. SCSU would advance to the Frozen Four, where they fell to Quinnipiac.

This year, the Huskies won the first-ever NCHC regular season title (they lost to Miami (OH) in the first round of the NCHC playoffs) and are hoping to top their Frozen Four appearance from last year. Statistically, ND and SCSU are even in many areas. According to Chris Dilks' preview (linked above), their main strength is their offense; their scoring is a bit more top-heavy than ND's (three of their players have more points than ND points leader T.J. Tynan), led by senior Hobey Baker Award finalist Nic Dowd.

Although they are dangerous on the power-play and can ring up goals more quickly (3.67 GPG compared to ND's 3.00 GPG), the Huskies biggest weakness is on their blue line; they allowed a mediocre 2.78 GPG, whereas the Irish defense boasts a top-5 unit with only 2.10 GPG allowed (which dropped to an astounding 1.83 in their last 11 games). Junior 'tender Ryan Faragher has had an up-and-down season, finishing with a 2.76 GAA and a .906 SV%. Not terrible numbers, but not quite as solid as Steven Summerhays' 2.00/.925 resume.

The winner of this matchup will go on to play the winner of the Minnesota/RMU matchup on Sunday.

Prediction Time

Dark516Knight, the hockey mastermind over at SBN's The Daily Gopher, knows a thing or two about hockey in Minnesota, so he graciously offered us a few thoughts on this weekend's slate of games:

Realistically, I see the Gophers handling the Colonials with ease. When it comes to the Irish against Saint Cloud State, I see a good game that could go either way. Expect SCSU to have lots of fans in the seats, as St. Cloud is only about an hour northwest of the Twin Cities. It will be a tough atmosphere for Notre Dame because the Gopher fans who stick around will likely be pulling for the Huskies because they're like our little brother or something. Personally, I would like to see Notre Dame advance to Sunday because our little brother has a big mouth. If Minnesota wins on Saturday, whoever they play Sunday will have a tough game on their hands. The Xcel Energy Center never gets as loud as it does at the end of the Minnesota Rouser with the home crowd spelling our name.

Best-case scenario: Eager to prove that their 4-0 loss to UMass Lowell was an anomaly, the Irish burst out of the gate and take the fight to the Huskies by employing the pesky forechecking of T.J. Tynan and Co. Caught off guard by Notre Dame's relentless pressure, St. Cloud commits several turnovers in their own zone and pay for it dearly when Bryan Rust and Vincent Hinostroza swoop in to clean up Faragher's big rebounds. Defensively, the Irish bruisers pound SCSU's stars at every turn and are content to force play away from the middle of the zone. Summerhays is treated to bad-angle shots all night, with his only lapse occurring during the Huskies' desperation 6-on-5 in the last minute with the Irish nursing a comfortable 4-0 lead.

Worst-case scenario: Though not as egregious as last year's sin bin fest, several unfortunate calls go against the Irish in the second period; the Huskies are all too happy to extend the Notre Dame PK's dubious seven-game streak with two PP tallies. Faragher is equal to the task all night, and in the third period Nic Dowd slips behind the Irish defense to close the lid on Notre Dame's season once again.

Most likely scenario: Looking to avoid a repeat of last year, Notre Dame stresses disciplined defense in order to avoid penalties, limit the chances for the Huskies' high-powered offense, and take the air out of the building. In the din of the pro-SCSU crowd, the seniors deliberately slow the pace of play early on (akin to the old ND basketball "burn" offense) and methodically play their puck-possession style. Following the initial rush, the Irish draw first blood when Stephen Johns fires a long stretch pass to a streaking T.J. Tynan, who wrists it under Faragher's glove. SCSU ties it up on (what else) a power play late in the second, but Irish captain Jeff Costello replies 30 seconds later by deflecting a Shayne Taker slapshot past a screened Faragher. The third period sees one more goal for each side, but the outcome is sealed when Sam Herr launches a shot into the Huskies' empty net with 10 seconds left. NOTRE DAME 4, ST. CLOUD STATE 2

The puck drops at 9:00 P.M. on Saturday night. GO IRISH, BEAT HUSKIES!

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