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Hockey: Balance of experience and youth is key to Irish victory

Dan Murphy | Friday, March 9, 2007

Over two-thirds of their roster has never won a postseason game. Just over a year ago, they were easily swept by the same club, in the same building. Their opponent is coming off of a momentum-building upset on the road while they collected rust during a week off. They are swamped with enough distractions to throw off a bomb specialist on Ritalin and yet, the Irish should be able to cruise past Alaska this weekend on their final stop before reaching Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA finals.

There is no doubt that the heavily favored, No. 1 Irish will be the more talented team on the ice this weekend. Notre Dame took all four games in the season series with Alaska, outscoring them by a total of 13-5. The Nanooks (11-20-6) have struggled to win consistently all season. The last time they strung together back-to-back victories was Oct. 27-28 against Ferris State.

Playing in the Joyce Center should also be an advantage for the Irish, as they will be able to create favorable matchups among lines all night long.

On paper, the Irish defense should have no problem getting the job done this weekend. But the end of the year accolades, conference championship and an all but certain NCAA Tournament berth looming in the near future make it perfectly feasible for Notre Dame to overlook the most important game – the one at hand.

The Nanooks have already knocked off one team in their underdog role, defeating Western Michigan in a three-game series last weekend. Alaska is known for their physical, defensive-minded hockey. Their style is designed to keep the game within striking distance and wear teams down, a strategy that worked perfectly last year at the Joyce Center in a two-game sweep during the opening round of the CCHA playoffs. It almost paid off again for the Nanooks earlier this season when Notre Dame needed a Dave Brown shutout and a Garrett Regan overtime goal to squeak out two wins in Fairbanks Feb. 16-17.

So why does Alaska still not have an Eskimo’s chance in hell of pulling their second straight upset?

This series is far from just another day in the office, as it might be for No. 1 teams in the past. Not a single player on the team has played in the CCHA semifinals before, which gives them all the motivation they need to come out at full speed.

At the same time, the possible jitters and negative aspects of their inexperience are balanced by the experience and knowledge of head coach Jeff Jackson. In his six years at Lake Superior State, Jackson dealt with the hype, he dealt with weeks off and he dealt with the distractions. His 12 All-American players, four CCHA titles, and two national championships show that he dealt with them pretty well.

The one hiccup on his resume came in 1991 when his No. 1 Lakers were upset by Clarkson in the NCAA quarterfinals after having a bye the previous weekend. Jackson has changed his approach slightly this time around, but he said there is only so much you can do in that situation – the players have to stay intense.

According to Jackson, they have been doing just that. The team looked sharp in an intra-squad scrimmage Saturday and has been skating hard in practice all week long. In a team meeting prior to their scrimmage the Irish redefined their goals for the rest of the season. They had only one thing they hoped to accomplish as of that Saturday – a trip to Detroit for the CCHA semifinal game.

And now for the first time in their 40-year history, the Irish have all the necessary tools to reach that goal and many more. They have the drive and the talent of some of the nation’s top young players, and the veteran coach to guide them through it while focusing on one step at a time.

Alaska is step one.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not those of The Observer.

Contact Dan Murphy at dmurphy6@nd.edu