They just missed out on their dream a year ago.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish barely made the NCAA Tournament, but made their appearance in the event count. The fourth-seeded Irish beat top-seed New Hampshire in the West Regional in Colorado Springs, then won the regional by knocking off defending national champion Michigan State. Their run continued to the Frozen Four in Denver, where Notre Dame beat Central Collegiate Hockey Association rival Michigan before falling to Boston College in the championship game.
Despite losing out on that national title, there was plenty of hope entering this season for Notre Dame. The Irish returned virtually everyone off that team.
So far, promise has been fulfilled. Notre Dame is 18-3-2, riding an 18-game unbeaten streak, and ranked first in both major national college hockey polls. They haven't lost since a 3-2 setback to Miami (Ohio) on October 25.
A key component of this unbeaten run has been Notre Dame's balance. The Irish have 12 players with ten or more points in the team's first 23 games. They're being led by senior Christian Hanson's (undrafted) 14 goals and 25 points. More on Hanson in a second, but this past weekend belonged to junior Ryan Thang (NHL rights: Nashville). The third-round pick scored two goals and chipped in an assist as the Irish shut out Alaska 2-0 and 3-0 in South Bend.
Thang was third on the team in scoring a year ago, and he's slipped to eight goals and 14 points so far this year. That doesn't mean he's any less of a prospect, as he has played well for the Irish so far this year. Hockey's Future talks about Thang:
Thang is a tough, two-way power forward. As good as he has been offensively this season, it almost never came at the expense of his defensive responsibilities. He is meticulous in his attention to the details of his game, especially in his positional play. Thang is an excellent skater who is strong on his skates. His great stick work combined with his quick hands makes him a very proficient puck handler. Thang has shown a willingness to drive hard to the net and pay a price to make the play. He also has a knack for scoring timely goals. With added size and strength, Thang will be a more formidable player to contend with.Senior goaltender Jordan Pearce (inexplicably undrafted) is another huge reason for this team's success. He has a microscopic 1.48 goals against and a .940 save percentage.
With all their tools in place, Notre Dame has to be considered a national championship favorite. They have four lines, skill, defense, goaltending, and one of the nation's best coaches in Jeff Jackson. Look for them to be making plenty of noise come March.
As for Hanson, he's one of the country's top undrafted players, and one of the real leaders on this team. He also has a famous pedigree. Hanson's father, Dave, was one of the famous Hanson brothers in the famous hockey movie "Slap Shot." Dave Hanson recently told his story to author Ross Bernstein in a book that's one of the more intriguing stories you'll find on the shelves.
Other players to watch
North Dakota had a pretty good weekend, sweeping rival Minnesota 6-3 and 6-1 in Grand Forks. 2007 Hobey Baker Award winner Ryan Duncan (undrafted) scored three times on the weekend, while freshman Jason Gregoire (N.Y. Islanders) also chipped in three goals.
Northeastern junior goaltender Brad Thiessen (undrafted) stopped 61 of 63 shots as the Huskies swept Merrimack in a pair of 2-1 games. NU is now 14-4-2, atop Hockey East, and continuing their great upswing under fourth-year head coach Greg Cronin, who was 3-24-7 in his first year on the job.
Back from the World Junior Championships, Michigan's Aaron Palushaj (St. Louis) assisted on two of the Wolverines' four first-period goals in a 5-1 win over Miami (Ohio) Saturday. The Wolverines won 4-0 Sunday to finish the two-game sweep.
Finally, our best wishes go out to Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, who is continuing to battle an illness of unknown origin. He has not been on the bench for any of the Gophers' four games since Christmas, and he didn't even make the trip to Grand Forks for the North Dakota series.