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Hockey: Change in line sparks ND victory

Joe Meixell | Monday, January 22, 2007

KALAMAZOO, Mich. – One night after the scoring line of center Kevin Deeth and wingers Erik Condra and Ryan Thang was neutralized by Western Michigan en route to a Notre Dame loss, Irish coach Jeff Jackson heeded the words of a legendary NHL coach.

Jackson broke up his strike line of three of Notre Dame’s top four scorers and inserted left wing Evan Rankin for Thang for a portion of the first period. The substitution was rescinded halfway into the period, but the change was enough to throw the Broncos’ defensive pair off Jackson’s top line and generate enough offense for a 3-0 Irish win Saturday night at Lawson Ice Arena.

“That was meant more for trying to create a little bit more offensive depth,” Jackson said. “It’s a matter of matchups, and I learned a little lesson from Scotty Bowman a number of years ago that when a team matches so intensely on the road, and you can’t get away from the matchup – you have to do some things that force them to change, so that was kind of the philosophy.”

The shutout win guaranteed that No. 3 Notre Dame (20-5-1, 14-3-1 CCHA) would remain in first place in the CCHA going into next weekend’s series against second-place Miami, after a 3-2 loss Friday night to Western Michigan (9-13-1, 8-10-1 CCHA) threatened to topple the Irish from the top.

Irish goalie Dave Brown made 25 saves to earn his third shutout of the year, and defensemen Tom Sawatske and Brett Blatchford each scored, along with a late tally from Condra to prevent an unprecedented two-game skid.

“I can’t do without [the defense] battling for me every night,” Brown said. “They’re in the trenches in front of the net, clearing pucks in front, battling with guys to let me see. I can’t do without them.”

Sawatske broke nearly a period and a half of futile scoring chances on both sides with his third goal of the year at 7:21 into the second period for the 1-0 Irish lead. The senior ripped a shot from the top of the right circle past Broncos goalie Daniel Bellissimo (23 saves) on the low glove side.

Irish left wing Justin White sparked the successful scoring chance with a leading pass to center T.J. Jindra in the left corner while on a quick break into the Broncos zone, although White was not credited with an assist. Jindra then set up in the corner and zipped a pass across the slot to Sawatske on the far side.

“I thought we had [the offense] going for most of the game,” White said. “It was kind of hard to get chances there, [the Broncos] were playing pretty well defensively, but once we started getting a little offense going, we started getting some chances. So we just made the most of what we had.”

Western Michigan pressured early in the third period, generating several scoring chances, but the Irish defense held and allowed the offense to grind down the Broncos and silence their boisterous student section.

The successful Irish kill of a hooking penalty whistled on Sawatske at 9:25 into the third period crushed the last offensive surge of the Broncos and set up the Blatchford goal only a minute later. The Irish penalty kill shut down all seven Western Michigan man-advantage chances on the night.

At 12:42 into the third, Blatchford took a low, hard shot from the right point that snuck through a tangle of players and Bellissimo for the 2-0 lead with an assist credited to White.

Condra then sent the Broncos student section, clad all in black, on a funeral march up the aisles with his slap shot from the low left point that redirected off Bellissimo’s pads into the net at 14:29 for the 3-0 final.

“The bounces have gone our way,” Brown said. “Tonight just kind of came together for us. That was a big plus, we were all on the same page tonight. There’s good communication, we were just able to pull it together for a real good team effort.”

On Friday night, the Irish dropped a 3-2 decision to Western Michigan, snapping an eight-game unbeaten streak in CCHA play.

Broncos right wing Jeff Pierce squashed a two-goal third-period comeback by the Irish when he scored with 2:46 remaining in the game for the win. Western Michigan scored once in the first and second period before Notre Dame tied the score in the third with goals from defenseman Kyle Lawson and left wing Garrett Regan.

It was the fourth time this season that Western Michigan has defeated a top 10 team at home.

“We have incredible, incredible – and this is heartfelt – support from our fellow students, I mean it’s amazing,” Broncos coach Jim Culhane said. “I’m very proud of that, and when you have the electricity and the energy in the building that we do when we play those ranked teams, it’s contagious.”