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Hockey: Nanooks sweep the host Irish

Kyle Cassily | Monday, March 6, 2006

The lack of power-play success in a series chock full of special teams action – and a red-hot Nanooks goaltender – sounded the death knell for the Irish as the Icers dropped two straight games in a best-of-three, first-round CCHA playoff series to Alaska-Fairbanks over the weekend.

Alaska-Fairbanks (17-14-5) swept the Irish out of the playoffs with 3-1 and 1-0 victories and advanced to the second round to face Michigan State this Friday. Notre Dame (13-19-4) moved to 13-25 all-time in CCHA playoff games after the series.

Dan VeNard notched the lone Irish goal in the series and Fairbanks goalie Wylie Rogers made 61 saves in the two games, including 39 in Saturday night’s shutout.

Notre Dame continued to struggle with the power-play after going 0-for-16 in man advantage situations. The Irish have failed to convert on their last 30 chances, a streak dating back five games to a series with Bowling Green.

Both teams combined for 72 minutes in the penalty box, creating numerous man advantage and four-on-four situations.

“The power play is the combination of players, and if those players all go into a slump at the same time, then you’re going to have problems,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said. “It’s not the time of the year to make adjustments and change personnel. It’s been a staple of ours all year long, and I don’t think people recognized how important it was to our team until these last four games.”

The Irish penalty kill negated 11 out of 12 Nanook chances in the two games (a 91.6-percent success rate) – the lone power-play goal proving to be the decisive one in the 1-0 shutout.

Alaska-Fairbanks 3, Notre Dame 1

The Nanooks secured the game-winning goal Friday night midway through the third period in a game characterized by physical play and dump-and-chase battles for puck possession.

Fairbanks’ Kelly Czuy scored a garbage goal to give the Nanooks the 2-1 lead at 11:55 of the third period. Defenseman T.J. Campbell released a slap shot from the high left slot on Irish goalie Dave Brown that rebounded off Brown’s left pad to just above the crease.

Czuy roofed the puck over a scrambling Brown for the game-winner.

“In the third, it boils down to the discipline of our hockey team,” Jackson said. “We had a long shift and ended up with the winning goal in our net.”

Notre Dame got on the board first with VeNard’s goal at 13:31 in the first frame. Christian Hanson won the faceoff in the Nanooks’ zone and drew the puck back to Tim Wallace on top of the left circle. Wallace quickly redirected the puck to VeNard along the left boards, who stepped in low and dodged a Nanook defender below the circle.

VeNard let go a wrist shot that deflected off a Fairbanks’ player and Rogers left leg pad into the far side of the net.

“You take them any way you can get them,” VeNard said. “It was nice. I would have liked it to been a little bit prettier, but anything to get the team on the board and get us going.”

The goal would prove to be the only one that Rogers allowed to pass the goal line in the two games. He made 22 saves in the opening game.

“Obviously we have a hot goaltender on our hands,” VeNard said after Friday’s game. “There’s evidence to my goal that we have to keep trying to throw stuff towards the net.”

Fairbanks tied the game at 1-1 at 5:51 into the second stanza on a Curtis Fraser one-timer.

A turnover in the corner of Notre Dame’s zone allowed Kyle Jones to feed the puck to Fraser on the right point. Fraser one-timed the puck at Brown, who attempted to fight through a screen to make the save. Nathan Fornataro redirected the puck on its way to the net to notch the goal.

The Nanooks sealed the game at 19:23 of the third to make it 3-1 when Lucas Burnett scored an empty netter.

Notre Dame came out firing through the first period and prevented the Nanooks from enforcing their physical, defensive style. However the second period found the Irish deadlocked yet again in smash mouth battles along the boards.

“That’s their game,” Jackson said. “Their average age is about 23, ours is probably about 19. It’s men against boys in some situations.”

The Nanooks struggled to set up in the Irish zone and relied on a dump-and-chase strategy to work the puck past the Notre Dame defense stacked four-wide in the neutral zone.

“You have to get the puck behind their team. I don’t care how you do it,” Nanooks head coach Tavis MacMillan said. “You can skate it, you can pass it, you can chip it. You can do anything want – throw it for all I care. It’s just got to get behind their defensemen.”

The Irish went 0-for-6 on the power play with four shots in those situations on Rogers for the game.

Alaska-Fairbanks 1, Notre Dame 0

Saturday night’s game could simply be labeled the Wylie Rogers Show for the Fairbanks’ goalie’s 39 save performance. But that would be to ignore a gritty special teams battle – whose lone goal came off a fluke play – and a serious injury to goaltender Brown.

Midway through the first period on a Notre Dame power play, Brown rushed out of his crease to just halfway between the blue line and the top of the left circle to clear the puck away from a guaranteed Fairbanks breakaway.

Right winger Braden Walls – who had been charging for the puck – took Brown out at the knees and was whistled for a charging minor. Brown was unable to stand under his own power and was helped off the ice after several minutes.

Freshman Jordan Pearce quickly warmed up and entered his first game since Feb. 17. He had 15 saves on the night. It was the sixth career shutout for the sophomore.

“It’s a cheap shot,” Pearce said of the hit. “I’m sure the guy wasn’t intending to hurt him, but at the same time, when a goalie gets hit it’s really an intentional thing.”

Jackson was angered by the referee’s call on the infraction, while MacMillan was confused at handing out a charge call to a player sliding into a goalie out of the protected zone, which ends at the top of the circles.

“Two-minute penalty for running a goaltender,” Jackson said of the call. “He deliberately slid into him and took his legs out from underneath him. Two minutes for eliminating a goalie from a series.”

Fornataro broke his stick – and the scoreless deadlock – with his power-play goal at 19:04 of the second period. Freshman defenseman Tyler Eckford corralled the puck along the left side of the Irish zone and sent a cross ice pass to Fornataro just below the center of the right circle.

Fornataro wound up and released a slap shot that broke his stick blade upon contact with the ice. The black blade – wrapped in black friction tape – skidded along the ice to the right side of the net while the puck trickled through Pearce’s five-hole.

“I was actually screened on the shot,” Pearce said. “The guy broke his stick, and all I could see was the blade coming across. I thought that was the puck, so I followed the blade. When I saw that it wasn’t really the puck it was already too late.”

The Irish countered in the third with continuous pressure in the Nanook zone, but Rogers shut the door on any and all chances with 17 saves in the last 20 minutes. The Irish had 4:16 of man advantage play in the period.

Rogers allowed only three goals in 11 periods against the Irish since entering in relief of Chad Johnson in a 4-1 loss on Feb. 24.

“For the most part we were rotating well, reading what they were doing,” MacMillan said of the penalty kill. “When we did screw up, Wylie was there to bail us out. Your best penalty killer is your goaltender.”

Notre Dame created several mass scrambles in front of Rogers where, at some points, all 10 skaters became bunched up in front of the net. In a scramble at the 10:00 mark, several Irish players raised their hands in celebration of a goal, only to be waved off by the referees. All the scoring chances proved futile and a last ditch effort with Pearce pulled from the net was unsuccessful.

“I think they thought one of them was in,” Rogers said. “It was clearly not, but that’s just the emotion of the game and that’s part of hockey and that’s why it’s the greatest game.”