MANCHESTER, N.H. — When Notre Dame crashed and burned in the CCHA playoffs, there weren’t many people who saw the Fighting Irish winning at all in the NCAA tournament, much less advancing to the Frozen Four.
The CCHA playoffs had opened in ominous fashion, as the Irish needed three games, including one in overtime, to put away eighth-place Lake Superior State. Then Miami put on a men vs. boys performance, demolishing Notre Dame, 6-2. To make matters worse, Michigan defeated the Irish in the CCHA third place game, 4-2.
Not the way you want to enter the NCAA tournament.
The Irish weren’t so much entering as stumbling in. Oh and by the way, if they happened to right themselves and defeat Merrimack in the opening round, Miami would be looming as a brick wall one night later on the route to the Frozen Four.
“This team is a work in progress with so many young guys,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. “Last weekend, I thought we were focused, but after playing I felt that we were nervous for the wrong reasons.”
Jackson spoke to the university’s sports psychologist, Mic Franco. Franco talked about the concept of a stereotype threat, one most often applied to discriminated groups. According to the concept, individuals feel anxiety when put in situations where they can confirm a negative stereotype about their group.
Such as a hockey team that fails in big games.
Something must have clicked, because the anxiety the team collectively experienced a week ago didn’t resurface in the NCAA opening round against Merrimack. Halfway through the game however, a cynic might have suggested it should have. The Irish trailed 3-1 and were being outplayed by a good margin.
Instead of falling victims to anxiety, though, they put the pressure on Merrimack, outshooting them in the third period, 17-4, en route to tying the game and almost winning it in regulation.
The overtime however, was all Merrimack’s, until a sweep check by Anders Lee miraculously wound up in the back of the net.
“We haven’t made it easy on ourselves all year,” goaltender Mike Johnson said with a laugh. “But that just shows the resiliency of our team. We have great leadership and great youth, which brings a lot of excitement, which helps in some situations. With our mindset, we feel we can do anything.”
Although the brick-wall Miami RedHawks had been eliminated themselves, Notre Dame still faced an imposing team, the New Hampshire Wildcats, in the Northeast Regional championship game. UNH had decisively outplayed Miami to get within one game of the Frozen Four, and was also playing in front of what amounted to a home crowd.
Nothing to worry about.
The Irish got on the board first and scored a backbreaker five seconds before the end of the second period to take a 2-0 lead. Although UNH got to within one midway through the third, the Irish played their game, and by winning the battles in neutral ice and keeping the puck bottled up in UNH’s zone, won the game that sent them to the program’s second Frozen Four appearance in history.
“With the closeness of our team, we knew we could do anything,” Johnson said. “[The CCHA playoffs] were just kind of a wakeup call more than anything, just making us know that we had to play for 60 minutes every night if we were going to win from there on out. We got that wakeup call, and had a really good weekend.”
Really good just might be an understatement.