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by Staff Writer / Tampa Bay Lightning
tbl.commentator - Melanie Formentin

With a focus on progress, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are taking steps towards improving their program and making a name for themselves in the competitive CCHA Conference of Division I College Hockey. One of those steps includes competing in the inaugural Lightning College Hockey Classic.

Notre Dame arrived in Tampa on a high note, coming off of a weekend in which they claimed a solid 7-1 victory over the top-ranked Boston College Eagles. The next night they went on to beat the Providence College Friars, 6-1.

There was a Mark Van Guilder hat trick, a Dan Kissel hat trick and goaltender David Brown allowed just two goals on 50 shots. Even so, those are just steps in the greater vision of success for this Notre Dame hockey season.

The rebuilding process for the Fighting Irish began last season when Jeff Jackson was named the new hockey head coach. Jackson arrived at Notre Dame with an impressive resume that includes two NCAA titles, two CCHA regular-season titles and four CCHA tournament championships. There is also Jackson's 195-71-29 overall NCAA coaching record, one that gives him the record for best winning percentage (.710) among active NCAA coaches.

Particularly impressive is that this is just a glimpse of Jackson's accomplishments at the college level. One can be assured that Jackson doesn't want to stop his winning ways any time soon.

Proving that he was ready to tackle the task of re-building the Fighting Irish, Jackson made an immediate impact by coaching the team to a 13-19-7 record last season. As anyone at Notre Dame might tell you, the face of that record doesn't tell an entire story.

For the Irish, the results of last season's campaign came on the heels of a 5-27-6 overall record in the 2004-05 season. That included a 3-20-5 record against CCHA opponents. During the 2005-06 season the team also got off to a rough start, posting nine losses compared to only three wins. It was at that point when things really turned around for Notre Dame.

The Irish finished their final 23 games last season with a more impressive 10-10-3 record, and they improved to 11-13-4 against their CCHA rivals. Compared to the previous season, those totals amounted to 15 extra points in the standings, good enough for the second-best point increase in the league.

Those results come out of taking the steps that Jackson is looking for, and this is also part of what makes the College Hockey Classic such a big opportunity for his Fighting Irish.

"It's our second year of rebuilding but they seem to be getting it," said Jackson of his players. "It's an important weekend for us in the fact that we had a good weekend last weekend, but that's behind us now. We have to continue to move forward and we certainly can't go into this weekend without the same level of intensity or excitement that we had going into last weekend. It's just going to be a matter of getting them [the players] refocused and making sure that they have respect for their opponents and that they have the right mindset going into this first tournament."

For Jackson, getting Notre Dame into tournaments such as this one is an important move in rebuilding his team successfully. The better a team gets, the better teams they play, which ultimately means bigger venues and loftier expectations.

"I want to start getting our team accustomed to playing in big venues and a tournament environment," said Jackson. "They haven't played in a lot of tournaments in recent years. I think it's important that we learn to play in a two-game tournament environment to simulate the day that we make the CCHA playoffs, or the NCAA playoffs. I think it's a good learning tool for them [the players] to get a good idea of how to play back-to-back against two different opponents, and be able to respond over 24 hours. To be able to play 120 minutes as opposed to just 60."

To this point, the Fighting Irish seem to have taken Jackson's message to heart. Going 3-1-0 through their first four games, Notre Dame experienced their only loss at Minnesota State where they brought the former national champion Golden Gophers to overtime.

To Notre Dame and Jackson, even though the Lightning College Hockey Classic is just a two-day tournament it is more than just the final scores that matter. In the process of re-building their program, the Fighting Irish can be proud of the rapid successes they have seen over the last two seasons. Through the tournament they can also gain confidence and experience that they will hopefully be able to put to use on even larger stages in the coming years.

While it's natural that the Irish want to come out of the weekend victorious, it remains that the bigger picture of success is still all about taking those smaller steps.
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