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Irish try to bear Nanooks

Kyle Cassily | Friday, December 1, 2006

In the Inuit language a nanook is a polar bear, but in Inuit mythology Nanook was the master of bears – the power that determined if hunters deserved success in the pursuit of their prey, and a fitting nickname for the team that out-powered Notre Dame last season.

The Nanooks of the University of Alaska played the role of their mythological forebear last year and decided that Notre Dame did not deserve to move on to the second round of the 2006 CCHA playoffs, sweeping the Irish out in a first round series at the Joyce Center.

But this season the No. 14 Nanooks (6-2-4, 4-1-3 CCHA) will encounter a bigger and vastly improved Irish team when they return to South Bend to play No. 5 Notre Dame (10-3-1, 5-2-1 CCHA) this weekend in the first two of four games between the two teams.

Alaska’s size and ability to control the puck better than an under-sized Irish team in the playoff series forced Irish coach Jeff Jackson to institute a heavy offseason strength program.

“Alaska was the one that really forced us to add some girth on our team,” Jackson said. “Our guys added a lot of weight, strength and a big part of that was due to the fact that Alaska is not the only team that’s big. Lake Superior is a big, physical team and Ferris State has some big guys on their team. You run across that with different teams in college hockey, and you have to be prepared to play against either type of team if you’re going to be successful.”

The Irish added the weight, a speedy freshman class and a lot more to launch themselves to the top of the national rankings, but Alaska has worked its way into the top 15 behind several new contributors. Among them is sophomore goaltender Chad Johnson, who has taken control of a majority of the starting job from junior Wylie Rogers – the stonewall behind the Nanook playoff series win.

“We thought we were kind of clicking at the right time last year, but we ran into a hot goaltender and a team that matched up well against us,” Irish defenseman Dan VeNard said of Rogers and last year’s playoffs. “And they kind of just stopped our momentum.”

Johnson is currently ninth in the nation in goals-against average (1.96) and 12th in save percentage (.923), while Rogers has a 3.43 average and .895 percentage in four games.

“I think they’re both very good,” Jackson said. “Wiley Rogers played great against us last year – I wouldn’t be surprised to see him either, they know he played well against us too.”

The Nanooks’ success lies not only in their size and strong defense behind Johnson’s goaltending, but also a potent offensive attack behind junior left wing Kyle Greentree and newcomer Dion Knelsen. Greentree is Alaska’s scoring leader (11 goals, nine assists), while Knelsen is fourth with four goals and six assists.

Prior to an injury in early November against Nebraska-Omaha, Knelsen had been fourth in the nation in points per game (1.5), earning recognition from pro scouts. He was named an “A” prospect Nov. 15 by the National Hockey League’s Central Scouting Service, a label saying he has the potential to be drafted in the first three rounds of the upcoming NHL draft – the first “A” prospect in Alaska history. Knelsen is also 17 years old, the second youngest player in college hockey.

“They do a real nice job of recruiting in my opinion,” Jackson said. “They’ve got some talented players on their team and adding another offensive skilled player is no different than us.”

Notre Dame enters the weekend series after a late loss Saturday to Nebraska-Omaha. The Irish allowed a third-period goal on a Maverick five-on-three to lose 3-2 – something they paid for in practice Tuesday.

“Practice was fun, we got the legs going a little bit,” VeNard said. “They’re a little more sore now. Obviously there were mistakes made on the weekend, so we paid for them.”

The Irish must improve on scoring five-on-five and receive significant contributions from multiple forward lines each night, Jackson said, but also to maintain the stellar defense – first in the nation with 1.36 goals allowed per game – that has launched the team into the national spotlight.

“Part of that is not just from a defensive perspective, part of that is from we’re doing a much better job possessing the puck,” Jackson said. “And that’s the best defense of all, when you’re not throwing the puck away – when you’re cycling and controlling the tempo of the game.”

The series will begin at 7:05 p.m. at the Joyce Center Saturday, due to the football banquet held in the Joyce Fieldhouse Friday night. The second game will start at 7:05 p.m. Sunday.