Notre Dame hockey: Conference clinched
Kyle Cassily | Monday, February 19, 2007
Only two years removed from a five-win season and a year after a rebuilding campaign ended in an early tournament exit, No. 1 Notre Dame has won the CCHA regular season title for the first time in the program’s 39-year history.
But Irish coach Jeff Jackson continued to walk the modest line that has been characteristic all year of a Notre Dame program that has shattered and barnstormed its way through records and ranked opponents en route to a No. 1 ranking and a guaranteed NCAA Tournament berth.
“We sang the fight song, just like we always do,” Jackson said. “There was still another game to be played. There will be time to celebrate later.”
The Irish (26-5-3, 20-3-3 CCHA) took the conference title after a 1-0 win Friday over Alaska – the team that knocked Notre Dame from the first round of last year’s CCHA playoffs – before completing the sweep Saturday with a 3-2 overtime victory in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Notre Dame eliminated Michigan, the only remaining contender, from the title race with the shutout win and then added a couple more points Saturday for a season total of 43 points with two games remaining – nine more than second-place Miami.
The Irish are the first conference champions in college hockey this season, with both No. 2 Minnesota and No. 3 New Hampshire one win away from taking their respective titles in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and Hockey East. Notre Dame also has the most wins (26) in college hockey this season as the team heads into the final two games of the regular season this weekend at home against ninth-place Ferris State.
It is the third CCHA regular-season championship for second-year coach Jackson, who won his first while head coach of Lake Superior State in 1990-91. He earned his second in 1995-96 when the Lakers split the crown with Michigan.
“For me, it’s all about Notre Dame and the hockey program,” Jackson said. “It’s huge stuff for us in such a short period of time. It’s a real credit to the kids, and it’s great for Notre Dame.”
It is the second time this season that the Irish have swept Alaska (9-17-6, 7-14-5 CCHA), with Notre Dame taking 3-1 and 6-2 decisions at home Dec. 2-3 over the then-No. 14 Nanooks. Notre Dame has gone 16-2-2 since that weekend, including a current nine-game unbeaten streak that started after a Jan. 19 loss to Western Michigan on the road.
The Nanooks watched a promising start to their season give way to a free fall to the bottom of the league standings since that series. Alaska has gone 3-16-2 since Dec. 2, including a nine-game losing streak that ended with a 5-2 win Jan. 26 over last-place Bowling Green.
The Irish, however, needed a third-period goal in the first game from freshman Ryan Thang and an overtime tally from sophomore Garrett Regan to get past the Nanooks – the fifth straight game in which the Irish have won by only one goal, including a 4-2 win Feb. 9 over Nebraska-Omaha in which the Irish got an empty-goal with only seconds left.
“The thing is that we’re winning those one-goal games,” Jackson said. “It’s more important that we win those games, than we lose them. If it’s by one goal, then that’s not a huge thing.”
Thang scored the only goal in Friday’s 1-0 victory 4:47 into the third period when he stole the puck in Alaska’s zone from defenseman Tyler Eckford and beat Nanooks goalie Wylie Rogers through his pads for the game-winner.
Irish goalie Dave Brown made 28 saves to earn his fourth shutout of the year and the 10th of his career, before he was replaced in net Saturday by sophomore and Alaska native Jordan Pearce.
“[Alaska is] a tough team to score against, and we are too,” Jackson said. “We were fortunate to score at the end and be able to hold on. The teams at the bottom of the standings are not much different than the teams at the top.”
Pearce made 33 saves in the 3-2 Irish overtime win Saturday – his first start since a 4-2 loss Jan. 7 to Robert Morris. Sophomore center Christian Hanson also made his first appearance this weekend since he was sidelined by mononucleosis over a month ago.
“It was good to get Christian Hanson back in the lineup,” Jackson said. “It was good to have Jordan Pearce get a game under his belt, play well and look confident. We want to get guys ready for the playoffs.”
Regan scored the overtime winner 1:41 into the extra session on a three-on-one. He made a rush up the ice with center Mark Van Guilder and defenseman Wes O’Neill and dished the puck off to Van Guilder in the Nanooks zone. Van Guilder drew in the Alaska defenseman and sent the puck back to Regan, who beat Alaska’s Rogers up high for the win.
“Once again, we found an answer,” Jackson said. “It’s a different guy every game.”
The Nanooks forced the overtime period when Alaska’s Trevor Hyatt shoveled a rebound past Pearce 17:45 into the third period to tie the game 2-2.
The Irish scored first with a power play goal from right wing Erik Condra at 8:29 of the second period. Alaska evened the game at 1-1 with a goal from right wing Kyle Greentree at 13:05, but the Irish got back into the lead 2-1 with Regan’s first goal of the game a little over a minute later.
“You get to February, right as everyone is battling for position in the playoffs, [and] it gets tight,” Jackson said. “In every level I’ve ever been involved in, there’s a different level of hockey after Christmas time and a different level right before the playoffs.”
uJackson said senior forward Josh Sciba, who has been out of the Irish lineup for three weeks with an upper-body injury, will begin to skate again following next weekend’s series against Ferris State. Sciba was last season’s leading goal scorer and has seven goals and 10 assists in 27 games this year.