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Hockey: Northern exposure

Joe Meixell | Monday, February 27, 2006

Notre Dame and Alaska-Fairbanks left the last regular-season weekend as they entered it – deadlocked for the eighth spot in the CCHA – after the two teams split their series with a 4-1 Irish win and a 2-1 Nanooks victory.

Notre Dame (13-17-4, 11-13-4 in the CCHA) however, had reason to smile Sunday morning as their 5-3 combined goal advantage over the two-game set gave them the tiebreaker, the No. 8 seed in the CCHA Tournament, and, most importantly, home-ice advantage in the first round next weekend.

The Irish and ninth-seeded Nanooks will meet again in a best-of-three series Friday, Saturday and Sunday – if necessary – at the Joyce Center. The winner will advance to the second round of the tournament to take on one of the top seeds – Miami of Ohio, Michigan State, Michigan or Northern Michigan – who all earned opening round byes in the 12-team tournament.

The Irish scored three first-period goals Friday and were in control for most of the game. Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson said he was pleased with his team’s focus after a long school day.

“I’ve been a little concerned about our Friday night home games,” Jackson said. “Sometimes, it’s a little hard for them to refocus from school. Most of our guys have a pretty intense class schedule on Fridays.”

The Irish scored just 4:43 into the game as right wing Michael Bartlett found the back of the net for the second time this season. Defenseman Chris Trick broke his stick and skated toward the Irish bench. Bartlett jumped over the boards to replace him and found himself in perfect position to play the puck. The junior flipped a pass to center Erik Condra and cut to the goal, where Condra found him for the 1-0 lead.

A few minutes later, the Nanooks struck back. A turnover at center ice lead to a Fairbanks breakaway and defenseman Steve Vanoosten blasted the puck past Irish goalie Dave Brown from the left face-off circle.

Notre Dame answered at 13:06 and again at 17:55 with goals from its fourth line of Evan Rankin, Tony Gill and Garrett Regan. Jackson said he was pleasantly surprised by the three players, who usually see less ice time then the first three lines.

“I’ve had those guys together before,” Jackson said. “Garrett Regan skates really well, Evan Rankin is a tenacious player who plays physical, and Tony Gill is pretty smart, so they work well together.”

Rankin scored the first goal, flipping the puck from a severe angle behind and to the left of Nanook goalie Chad Johnson. The shot hit Johnson in the back and then ricocheted off the post and into the net to give Notre Dame the lead.

Regan, a freshman, added his third career goal a little under five minutes later when he punched a rebound of a Wes O’Neill shot past Johnson.

That was all the action Johnson would see, as he was pulled in favor of sophomore Wylie Rogers for the remainder of the game. Rogers held the Irish scoreless until the third period, when right wing Tim Wallace scored at the 3:49 mark to put Notre Dame up 4-1.

As the game was winding down, a scuffle took place near the Nanook net which resulted in several penalties, including a game misconduct for Trick. Jackson said after the game he couldn’t see what was going on but was surprised that the senior would be involved in an after-the-whistle melee.

“That’s out of his nature,” Jackson said. “He’s not taken a penalty like that while I’ve been here.”

Alaska-Fairbanks 2, Notre Dame 1

The Irish struggled to a 2-1 loss to the Nanooks on Saturday night with heavy playoff implications on the line.

Defenseman Tom Sawatske got the Irish an early lead with his goal only 1:24 into the first period. Notre Dame worked the puck into Alaska-Fairbanks’ zone with a strong forecheck. The puck was sent to Bartlett on top of the left circle, who dished the puck over to Sawatske on the right point. Sawatske stepped towards the net and sent a low wrist shot into the net past Nanook goaltender Wylie Rogers just inside the right post for the 1-0 Irish lead.

Alaska-Fairbanks struck less than five minutes later, and scored twice in a 48-second span, starting with a goal by left wing Aaron Lee at 6:10 of the first frame.

A neutral zone turnover by the Irish allowed Curtis Fraser to split through the Notre Dame defense. Fraser – with the Irish defense close behind – came down alone on Brown and attacked to the left side of the net. Brown came out aggressive with a poke check and made the initial save, but the puck trickled through his pads to the middle of the crease. Lee batted the puck from underneath the legs of Irish forward Josh Sciba into an open net to tie the game at 1-1.

“I assume it must have trickled through my body and went through the other side of the net, because I overcommitted with the poke check, and I thought I recovered,” Brown said. “It’s really frustrating, you replay it in your mind, maybe what would have happened if I just played him one-on-one.”

Fairbanks’ Kyle Greentree scored the game-winning goal only seconds later on an assist from Kelly Czuy. Greentree got the puck at the bottom of the left circle and went opposite side with his shot. The wrist shot found the back of the net just underneath the crossbar on Brown’s glove side for the eventual 2-1 final.

“I thought last night was going to be like tonight, not that we’d win 2-1, but just the way the game went,” Alaska-Fairbanks head coach Tavis MacMillan said.

The remaining two-and-a-half periods remained a scoreless, defensive battle between the two teams. The teams found themselves at each others’ throats in many post-whistle skirmishes.

“[The Nanooks] gave us some problems in their defensive zone because of their reach and their strength,” Jackson said of Notre Dame’s inability to score.

Brown stood on his head to keep the Irish within striking distance throughout the late periods. He stopped 34 out of the 36 shots he faced, including 14 saves in the third period alone.