SOUTH BEND -- The physical rigors of college hockey can be an eye-opening experience for a freshman.
The first time an 18-year old rookie, used to dominating the competition at the high school or junior level, goes into the corner to dig out a puck against a gritty CCHA team with a roster full of older, bigger, stronger, and craftier veterans, can be a memorable learning experience for most youngsters.
Notre Dame freshman left winger Thomas DiPauli is not like most youngsters. About six weeks shy of his 19th birthday, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound DiPauli has played in every one of ND's 36 games, and has proven himself to be a tough competitor, unafraid of mucking it up in the corners.
In fact, DiPauli gets a kick out it.
"I love that," DiPauli said. "I love going up against some 6-5 bearded man that just looks scary. I love going into the corners with him, because I know he's going to try and absolutely wreck me, and to spin off of him is the best feeling after you do it. I love that kind of stuff."
DiPauli and the Irish will get plenty of opportunities this weekend to mix it up along the walls when they welcome back Bowling Green to the Compton Family Ice Arena. The 12th-ranked Irish (21-12-3 overall, 17-8-3-2 CCHA) host the Falcons (15-19-5, 10-15-3-1) in a best-of-three CCHA quarterfinal series beginning Friday night.
BG's game is in the corners, where it wants to force the Irish to get low, work hard, grind it out, and generally frustrate them into a mistake. But the Irish showed they can play that kind of game if needed in a sweep of BG in the final weekend of the regular season.
Gritty workers like DiPauli are a big reason for that. All year, DiPauli has hustled his way to more and more ice time, starting with his pesky presence on ND's top penalty killing unit.
Originally from Bolzano, nestled in the Alps of northern Italy, hockey brought DiPauli to the U.S. in seventh grade, along with his older brother, Theo, who is currently a freshman at Union College.
The younger DiPauli's play has been familiar to Irish fans from the start: His game is similar to that of ND junior T.J. Tynan. Notre Dame's leading scorer the past two years, Tynan uses his speed and tenacity to get to the puck, and get under his opponents' skin, and DiPauli has learned much from him.
"Watching him, even in practice, he's intense," DiPauli said of Tynan. "He makes people around him better by being more intense. Even after practice, little games like one-on-ones and two-on-twos, he's intense. That makes you want to beat him. I hate losing to T.J., and I think all the guys do. Having T.J. beat you is probably the worst thing.
"I think it's all the carbs he eats, because that's all he eats. I don't know what his secret is. Maybe the carbs, but he just goes all the time."
The same can be said for DiPauli.
If Notre Dame has any aspirations of making the NCAA hockey tournament (hint: they do), then the Irish need to beat Bowling Green this weekend and advance to the CCHA tournament semifinals next weekend at Joe Louis Arena.
They don't necessarily need to come home from Detroit toting title hardware (and an automatic berth), but their NCAA fate is tenuous at best. Notre Dame, ranked 12th in the latest USCHO.com poll, sits at No. 15 in the PairWise Ranking after a week off.
Just like two weeks ago when the Irish swept Bowling Green to close out the regular season, beating BG won't help from a computer standpoint. The Falcons are not a Team Under Consideration (TUC), so beating them does nothing to boost the Irish up the PWR. But losing to the Falcons will become an anchor around their skates, likely sinking them down the PWR, and out of consideration for an at-large NCAA bid.
Case in point, following its 4-3 victory over Bowling Green on March 1, Notre Dame actually dropped three spots in the PWR, based on what other teams around them did that night against teams under consideration.
The only thing ND can about it now is ignore the computers and just win, as much as possible.
"That's the way we have to approach it," said ND coach Jeff Jackson. "I hope our guys don't look at it from week to week. I check it out, but it doesn't matter. We have to win."