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by Melanie Formentin / Tampa Bay Lightning

TAMPA, Fla. – Last season the inaugural Lightning College Hockey Classic gave the Notre Dame Fighting Irish a setting in which to show the strength of their rebuilding efforts. Posting consecutive shutouts, the Fighting Irish claimed the first championship as the host of the College Hockey Classic. 

This season, Notre Dame’s focus has shifted from rebuilding to continuing the improvement that the program has maintained in recent seasons. 

Under the guidance of head coach Jeff Jackson, the Fighting Irish boast a roster of talented young skaters who have moved from the bottom to the top of the NCAA hockey standings in a span of three years. After winning only five of their 38 games during the 2004-05 season, Notre Dame skated to a 45-26-10 record in the first two years under Jackson’s guidance. 

A Division-I member of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), the Fighting Irish took their conference by storm in 2006-07. Posting a 32-7-3 overall record, Notre Dame finished first in the CCHA with a 21-4-3 record against conference opponents. The club went on to win their first CCHA tournament championship with a victory against the Michigan Wolverines in the final. 

Setting school records for overall wins and CCHA victories, Notre Dame claimed the regular season championship and were ranked 1st in the nation for seven consecutive weeks (February 5 - March 25, 2007). Making 24 points of improvement in the standings in a span of two seasons, the Fighting Irish became only the third team in CCHA history to improve from last to first in such a short amount of time. 

Although the Fighting Irish dropped their NCAA Tournament quarterfinal match-up against the Michigan State Spartans, one could argue that such a dramatic improvement from one season to the next is hard to come by. Notre Dame has only continued their success through the first half of the current season. 

When the puck drops on Saturday, December 29 (5:00p.m.) at the St. Pete Times Forum, Notre Dame will begin the second half of their season with a match-up against the University of Massachusetts. Skating into the contest on a nine-game winning streak, the club’s longest streak since 1987, the sixth-ranked Fighting Irish will open the College Hockey Classic tied for second in the CCHA standings. 

Notre Dame enters the College Hockey Classic with a 16-4-0 record, including a 10-2-0 conference record. Of their losses, two have come against the 5th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers and the top-ranked Miami RedHawks. Playing in two-game series against both clubs, the Fighting Irish split each pair of weekend games earlier this season. 

Arguably, the strength of Notre Dame’s club extends through all levels of players and up to the coaching staff.

One of the NCAA’s premiere coaches, Jackson has built an impressive college hockey resume that includes two NCAA titles and the best winning percentage (.721) among Division I coaches with five or more years of experience. Through eight years of coaching college hockey, Jackson entered this season having accumulated a 227-78-32 overall record. Notre Dame’s success in 2006-07 earned Jackson CCHA coach-of-the year honors and the Spencer Penrose Award national coach-of-the-year honors. 

In goal, junior Jordan Pearce has stepped in and replaced former Notre Dame netminder David Brown to the tune of a 13-4-0 record, 2.01 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. Taking over for Brown, a Hobey Baker Finalist, CCHA player of the year, CCHA goaltender of the year and CCHA tournament MVP would seem like anything but an easy task. Instead, Pearce has taken the challenge in stride. 

“Right from the beginning I think that he [Pearce] looked at this opportunity as a chance to prove himself and he’s done just that,” Jackson said. “All in all he's probably been one of the best surprises that we've had this year as far as his ability to step in and take right over for where David Brown left off.” 

This season Pearce leads the NCAA in minutes played (1014:43) and has started more games (17) than any of the other top 35 NCAA goalies. Ranked second in the CCHA with 9-2-0 record, Pearce has recorded three shutouts on the season. 

“I think because of our success last year we went into this season with higher expectations, although you have to be a little bit concerned in the fact that we lost eight seniors, including our Hobey Baker candidate David Brown in goal, and three of our top four defensemen,” Jackson said. “We knew we were losing a fair bit and yet I think that based on our recruits and the returning players that we have, I think everyone had high expectations.” 

On the blue line, senior Dan VeNard and sophomore Kyle Lawson have stood out as team leaders. VeNard was recently named the CCHA defenseman of the week for his play in a pair of wins at Princeton on December 7 and 8. With five goals and eight points through 20 games this season, VeNard has already matched his prior career output of eight points (two goals, six assists) through 71 games.

Prior to VeNard earning the honor, Lawson had picked up CCHA defenseman of the week honors for the consecutive weeks ending November 18 and 25. Coming off a season in which he was named to the CCHA all-rookie team, Lawson is tied for third on the team in scoring. The Notre Dame blue-liner has posted three goals and 11 assists through 20 games this season.

The balanced scoring spreads to the Fighting Irish’s forward lines as ten players have five or more goals. Another member of the 2006-07 CCHA all-rookie team, sophomore Ryan Thang is tied for 12th in the nation with his team-leading 10 goals this season.

Junior Erik Condra, has led the Fighting Irish in scoring for the previous two seasons. An alternate captain for Notre Dame, Condra ranks fifth in the nation with 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) and is tied for first in the nation with three shorthanded markers.

Senior captain Mark Van Guilder is tied for 20th in the NCAA in points, ranking second on Notre Dame with 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) this season. Last season, Van Guilder posted career high in goals (18) and points (34).

With a solid spread of NCAA-leaders on their roster, a highly successful coach and a steadily improving program, Notre Dame has quickly become a team to watch. As they enter the second annual College Hockey Classic, the club will no doubt keep an eye on maintaining the high level of play that has made them one of the top programs in the nation.

“I think the fact that the tournament has such a strong field is going to be a real challenge for all four teams because all four teams are ranked in the Top 15,” Jackson said. “It's going to be a tough event, and great for people in Tampa to see probably an event similar to what that they're going to see a couple years down the road at the Frozen Four.”

2007 Lightning College Hockey Tournament Champions
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