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ROAD TO THE FROZEN FOUR: Merrimack Set for Fighting Irish Showdown

Two of the top 10 teams in the nation battle on Saturday in Manchester in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Verizon Wireless Arena, known to some as “The Big V,” will host Merrimack College’s first NCAA Tournament game in 23 years.

Saturday night in Manchester, the Warriors will face off against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in the first round of the 16-team tournament.

The winner of Saturday night’s showdown will play the winner of the Saturday afternoon game, Miami of Ohio or the University of New Hampshire. The two succeeding teams will do battle on Sunday night with a berth in the NCAA Frozen Four on the line.

This year’s Frozen Four is slated to get underway on April 7 at the Xcel Entergy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Merrimack was fortunate to be scheduled into the Manchester bracket, as the other four regional brackets are located in Green Bay, St. Louis, and Bridgeport, CT.

“That’s an advantage for us,” said Warriors goalie Joe Cannata after a recent practice. The team was able to practice at their home rink all week before heading to Manchester on Thursday night.

“We’ll get hopefully a lot of home fans there, which we’ll probably thrive off pretty good,” Cannata added.

Head coach Mark Dennehy was more concerned about the team they drew, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

“You draw Notre Dame and one of the most successful coaches in college hockey, you don’t necessarily feel lucky, you feel like you’ve got your hands full,” said Dennehy.

Notre Dame’s coach Jeff Jackson is in his fifth year coaching the Fighting Irish and in his 11th season overall. His lifetime record coaching in the college ranks is a stout 298-114-47.

“We’re going to have our hands full,” said Dennehy. “They’ve got some very skilled younger players,” he said.

Merrimack comes in to the game ranked at number seven in the nation while Notre Dame is breathing down their necks at number nine.

“They don’t beat themselves,” Dennehy said of the Fighting Irish. “Very disciplined, very organized,” he continued.

Dennehy and his staff prefer to keep the focus on their own squad rather than changing things up to combat their opponent.

“It’s all about us,” Dennehy said. “We don’t change much; we don’t change much about what we do,” he said.

Cannata concurred.

“We don’t really need to change much; we’ve been playing pretty well of late,” he said. “If we play our game, things tend to work out pretty good,” he continued.

A gave the Warriors a berth in their first ever Hockey East Final where .

“By now most guys are over it,” Cannata said.

Saturday’s game may feature the return of Warriors captain Chris Barton, who missed Merrimack’s entire stint at the Garden with a hip flexor injury.

“I’m penciling him in,” said Dennehy of the senior captain. “I think he’ll still be a game time decision,” he said.

Barton, the soul of the Warriors, has been working toward this moment for his entire career at Merrimack.

“He’s  been working his tail off the last few weeks to try to get back, and he’s worked four years for this,” said Cannata. “Everyone would really like to see him back in the lineup,” he said.

That includes Dennehy.

“At this stage, I don’t think there will be any rust,” Dennehy said.

Saturday’s game could see Merrimack’s hockey program move into uncharted waters.

“I like our chances; I’ve liked our chances every weekend this year,” said Cannata.

Here are the key facts for Saturday’s showdown:

Merrimack Notre Dame National Ranking #7 #9 Northeast Regional Ranking #2 #3 Record 25-9-4 23-13-5 Key Senior Chris Barton Ryan Guentzel Key Junior Joe Cannata (goalie) Billy Maday Key Sophomore Stephane Da Costa Mike Johnson (goalie) Key Freshman Brendan Ellis T.J. Tynan

Saturday's game will be broadcasted live on Comcast SportsNet New England in HD at 7:30 p.m. The game can also be seen on ESPN3.com and heard on 1400AM and merrimackathletics.com.

North Andover Patch will feature a live blog straight from Manchester to keep you caught up on everything that happens in Saturday's game.

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