Notre Dame hockey: Jackson better suited as underdog

Steve Lowe
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND -- If he could choose, Jeff Jackson would just as soon not be the favorite. The underdog role suits him much better.

At just about every stop in his long hockey journey, from an injury-shortened playing career in the late-70s at Michigan State, to his coaching stops along the way, finally to taking over a Notre Dame program at its lowest point, it's been a familiar role for the Irish coach.

"I'm much better suited for being the underdog," Jackson said. "I was always an underdog, personally, and then when I was at Lake State. Even when I was working for USA Hockey. Back when we started that national program (in 1996), the U.S. was underdogs."

When Notre Dame takes the ice Saturday in St. Paul, Minn., the Irish will be gladly accepting the underdog role. Facing 3-seed St. Cloud State, which is just a quick 80-mile jaunt from the Xcel Energy Center, and with No. 1 Minnesota lurking for a potential West Regional final matchup in its home away from Mariucci Arena, it matters little that the Irish are the 2-seed in this NCAA region. They'll definitely be the away team.

"We're better like that," Jackson said. "We're better off playing in that situation. We were better playing at BC, we were better playing Minnesota here earlier in the year, the No. 1 team in the country. We've been there before and I think our team feeds off that."

Senior assistant captain T.J. Tynan relates to that mentality. At 5-foot-9 and 165 lbs., Tynan has made a career of being the underdog, fighting for space among bigger players. He's heard the whispers for a long time and used them as fuel.

"You definitely get that feeling when you're not getting recognition for this or that, or people are saying you're under-sized, you kind of have a chip on your shoulder that you want to prove that person wrong," Tynan said. "I've always been comfortable with that mentality."

Maintaining the illusion of being that underdog has gotten harder over the past few years for Notre Dame. No longer a doormat or an other-ran in college hockey, the Irish boast a roster full of talent with 11 NHL draft picks, are regularly winning recruiting battles they normally lost a decade ago, and play in one of the country's best facilities by any measure, but particularly when compared to their former digs in the north dome of the Joyce Center.

The adjustment to success has had its difficult moments. That could help explain the difference between the years Notre Dame advanced to the Frozen Four when it was a low seed, and every other time the Irish were bounced from the NCAA tournament as a favorite.

It could make all the difference between last year's 5-1 loss against St. Cloud State, and this rematch with the Huskies on Saturday.

"Just watching the game last year, we didn't execute very well, and for whatever reason, I'm not sure," Jackson said. "We tried to prepare our team, but maybe we tried too hard to prepare our team. I'm trying to put more emphasis on us this year. Obviously, you have to do a few things to offset some of their strengths or weaknesses, but this has got to be about us.

"I felt that same thing last week when we (lost 4-0 to UMass-Lowell), maybe too much information. Coming off a big weekend against (Boston College), it's almost an identical situation and almost felt the same. I don't know how we would have done last year if we'd had a game after St. Cloud, but we're going to find out, probably, Saturday."

St. Cloud figures to travel well and, along with the leftover Gopher fans from the day's first game between Minnesota and Robert Morris, it should make for quite a hostile atmosphere.

But Jackson wouldn't have it any other way. He takes this underdog stuff seriously.

"All my dogs have been named after underdogs," Jackson said. "One dog was Rudy, one dog was Gipper - George Gipp, that's a true underdog. Hickory from 'Hoosiers', Hickory High School. And then Roy Hobbs from 'The Natural'. They were all underdogs and they all did big things, right?"

Observations

Over the past two weeks, both senior defenseman Stephen Johns and senior right winger Jeff Costello, almost word-for-word, put Notre Dame's three late-season wins over No. 2 Boston College into perspective by saying, "We didn't win anything. We aren't hanging any banners for beating Boston College."

True, the first win came in the final game of the regular season on Feb. 28, and the other two came two weeks later in the Hockey East tournament quarterfinals. The Irish went on to get shutout in the semifinals, 4-0 by UMass-Lowell.

While beating BC didn't result in any championships, it's important to note that without those wins, the Irish quite possibly would not still be playing for one. When they arrived at Chestnut Hill on Feb. 28, the Irish were 14th in the Pairwise rankings, right on the edge of the NCAA tournament bubble and in need of at least one more signature win to solidify their credentials.

Had the Irish lost that game, or maybe been beaten in the quarters and not advanced to TD Garden in Boston, they would have been in the same position that North Dakota and Michigan were in last weekend.

Both those teams lost early in their conference tourneys and had to sit around and hope for certain outcomes to fall their way to make it into the NCAAs. For the second straight season, the Wolverines were the first team out of the tournament.

North Dakota was 14th in the Pairwise heading into Saturday's conference championship games, and had to sweat it out right to the very end, needing a Wisconsin win over Ohio State in the Big Ten title match. The Badgers finally delivered in overtime, making North Dakota the final team into the field, and also setting up a first-round matchup with those very same Badgers on Friday in Cincinnati.

Thanks to three road victories over Boston College, one while the Eagles were ranked No. 1, Notre Dame suffered no such drama last Saturday. The Irish won't be hanging any banners from those wins, but if they end up bringing home something even bigger, that "missing piece" as Jackson puts it, those victories will at least deserve a footnote.

WHAT: NCAA Tournament, West Regional

WHO: Notre Dame (23-14-2) vs. St. Cloud State (21-10-5)

WHERE: XCel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minn.

WHEN: 9 p.m. Saturday

TV/ONLINE: ESPNU/WatchESPN

TICKETS: All-session (3 games) $94. Available at the Murnane Family Ticket Office or by phone at 574-631-7356. Tickets also available through Ticketmaster at ticketmaster.com or by calling 1-800-745-3000.