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Lawson Lunatics await contenders

Kyle Cassily | Sunday, January 21, 2007

Junior right wing Evan Rankin got intimate and bloody real fast with Western Michigan’s Lawson Ice Arena.

“The first time I stepped on the ice there, I fell right on the ice and split my chin open,” Rankin said. “I was three or four years old.”

Rankin is a native of Kalamazoo, Mich. – where Western Michigan is located – and called Lawson Arena home throughout much of his youth hockey days. Rankin went with his father to Broncos games before he could even walk, and once he got his feet beneath him, he would spend the game running around the arena with friends.

This weekend, Rankin won’t be exploring the bowels of the raucous rink, but will barnstorm into his hometown as a member of a national contender and provide a juicy target for Western Michigan’s notorious student section – the Lawson Lunatics.

“Every single year it seems that Western’s fans get rowdier and rowdier,” Rankin said. “It’s going to be pretty exciting to play there again.

“Yeah, we have a big mark on our back right now, but if we just have the right mindset – we’ll be alright.”

The No. 3 Irish (19-4-1, 13-2-1 CCHA) travel to Kalamazoo tonight for a two-game series against eighth-place Western Michigan (8-12-1, 7-9-1 CCHA). Notre Dame heads into the series with sole control of first-place in the CCHA, one week before a crucial two-game set at home with second-place Miami.

The Lunatics designate certain hecklers to sit behind the opposition’s penalty box and taunt players as they are whistled for penalties, Rankin said. But both Rankin and Irish coach Jeff Jackson were unconcerned about any challenges to the Irish that were not presented directly on the sheet.

“If you allow it to become a distraction – it can,” he said. “But I think it does more for the home team than it does for the visiting team.”

Last season, Notre Dame fell victim to the Broncos at Lawson, dropping a 4-3 decision before taking a 3-0 win the next day at home.

Western Michigan has played the lumberjack to three top-20 ranked team’s sequoias this season, chopping down then-No. 3 Michigan State, then No. 6 Miami and then-No. 6 Michigan – all at Lawson. And the Broncos have the nation’s 13th most potent offense, averaging 3.33 goals per game.

The Irish are no strangers recently to upsets in college hockey either. Robert Morris defeated Notre Dame 4-2 at the Joyce Center Jan. 7 in what the Colonials Athletic Department called, “the biggest upset in Robert Morris University athletics history.”

“They’re a good enough team to where they can beat those [ranked] teams, which tells you something,” Jackson said.

Notre Dame recovered from the unexpected pothole with a two-game sweep of No. 15 Lake Superior State last weekend on the road and its fortunes this season and beyond shined a little bit more brightly with the release Tuesday of the National Hockey League’s Central Scouting Service Mid-Term Rankings.

The CSS Rankings showcase the top 210 undrafted skaters and top 30 undrafted goaltenders in North America in preparation for the NHL Entry Draft. All seven incoming Irish freshman for the 2007-08 season were ranked in the list that impacts pro teams decisions when the draft begins June 22 in Columbus, Ohio.

“On paper, this class is one of the best classes that I’ve ever recruited,” Jackson said. “A lot of the credit has to go to [Irish assistant coach] Andy [Slaggert] and [associate head coach] Paul [Pooley] – Andy specifically because he does most of the recruiting.”

Recruit Brad Phillips, the Under-18 U.S. National Team Development Program’s goalie, was ranked No. 4 in goaltenders and was the highest-rated goalie to sign a collegiate letter-of-intent.

Phillip’s teammate on the NTDP, Teddy Ruth, was rated the No. 34 North American skater and the 12th best defenseman. Forwards Ben Ryan, Robin Bergman and Calle Ridderwall were No. 50, No. 97 and No. 109, respectively. Defenseman Ian Cole was at No. 113 and forward Billy Maday was at No. 177.

“It’s a little bit of a gauge, but it still doesn’t predict on how fast they develop,” Jackson said. “You don’t know if they’re going to come in and be gangbusters as freshman.”

Jackson noted the impact of undrafted Erik Condra in his freshman season, who led the Irish in points, and current undrafted freshmen Kevin Deeth and Ryan Thang – currently second and fourth on the Notre Dame points leaderboard.

Many prospects listed on the CSS Rankings forego college and jump straight from United States and Canadian junior leagues – particularly the Canadian major juniors – into the NHL or their pro team’s minor league affiliates.

Notes:

uIrish goalie Dave Brown and right wing Mark Van Guilder were named Jan. 10 as two of the 40 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top college hockey player in the country each year.

“I’m proud of [Van Guilder’s nomination’ because he’s an unsung player,” Jackson said. “He doesn’t get the recognition as maybe some of the top players in our league – let alone the country.”

Brown is currently the frontrunner for the award among college hockey analysts.

Fan voting will now run until March 4 and will combine with votes from all 58 Division I head coaches to determine the final 10 candidates. From there, a Selection Committee composed of media, NHL scouts and college coaches appointed for three-year terms by an Advisory Committee will decide the winner.

uSophomore Christian Hanson will miss the next three to four weeks with mononucleosis. Hanson has five goals and two assists this season, serving mostly as center on the same line as leading goal-scorer Van Guilder.

“We’re going to miss him taking face offs, we’re going to miss him from an instinctive part of the game,” Jackson said. “He’s a smart player and he has good hands. He always has the potential to score or create offense.”

Sophomore Justin White will see increased ice time, along with freshmen Dan Kissel and Christiaan Minella in the next few weeks, Jackson said.