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Hockey: Nanooks lumber back into Joyce for playoff rematch

Kyle Cassily | Friday, March 9, 2007

Alaska has always hit hard and hit often, but when it returns to the Joyce Center tonight, the rejuvenated Nanooks could bring a whole new world of pain to Notre Dame.

The Nanooks enter their second-round CCHA playoff series with the Irish a weekend after they defeated sixth-seeded Western Michigan in the first round. The series victory was a major upset for 11th-seeded Alaska and put the first air under the Nanooks’ wings since Notre Dame sent them into a prolonged tailspin back in early December.

“[Alaska is] playing a lot different than the last time they played in this building,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “They’re playing a lot more aggressive on their forecheck, a lot more physical and the nature of that [type of] game just gets the juices going. It’s like everybody wants to bang everybody else.”

The No. 1 Irish (27-6-3, 21-4-3 CCHA) and the Nanooks have played four times this season and Notre Dame has won all four games, including 3-1 and 6-2 victories Dec. 2-3 against then-No. 14 Alaska in South Bend. After that top-15 matchup, the Nanooks (11-20-6, 7-16-5 CCHA) dive-bombed to a 1-9 record in their next 10 games, plummeting to the bottom of the league standings – a place where they remained until last weekend’s upset of the Broncos in Kalamazoo, Mich.

But that means little to Jackson and the rest of the Irish – they have seen Alaska far too many times to expect an easy walkover into the semifinals in Detroit.

“Everybody has to understand that they weren’t losing games 8-0,” Jackson said. “The difference between them losing is scoring a goal at the right time. It’s the nature of this league, there are just too many teams that are too close to each other.”

Notre Dame also will not forget Alaska bounced them from the first round of last year’s league playoffs in two straight games – in front of their home crowd

“Last year [when] we went through the playoffs, we had a decent second half but we ran into a tough, gritty team,” Jackson said. “And we’re running into that same tough, gritty team again this year. I believe we’re a better team than we were a year ago at this time.”

Notre Dame may owe part of its success this season to what the Nanooks did to them in that series. After being out-muscled in the corners and thrown around the ice in last year’s playoffs, the Irish dedicated a large amount of their offseason workout to the weight room and subsequently added a serious amount of size up and down their lineup. That size has been a critical ingredient in Notre Dame’s top-ranked defense, solid penalty kill and aggressive forecheck this season.

When asked if the Irish seemed to hit a bit harder and a bit more against Alaska, Jackson said he had never noticed disrespect or nastiness between the two teams, but with the Nanooks it’s hard not to make a few more checks.

“Only because they do,” he added.

On paper, in every aspect of the game, the Irish own a statistical advantage to Alaska, but when it comes to the intangibles – from playoff intensity to experience – the Nanooks carry more weight than their second-to-last place finish suggests.

Last weekend’s defeat of Western Michigan was the third-straight year in which Alaska traveled to a higher-ranked opponent’s rink in the first round and moved on to the next round. The week after their playoff series with the Irish last season, the Nanooks took the first game in their set with eventual-champion Michigan State, before succumbing to the Spartans in three games at Munn Ice Arena.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, has lost four straight CCHA playoff games dating back to a March 14, 2004 win over Western Michigan, including sweeps by Michigan and Alaska. But Jackson brings a CCHA pedigree to the Irish that was nearly flawless until last season. He held a 24-2 CCHA tournament record in six seasons as coach of Lake Superior State – both losses came in the finals.

“People can say what they want about our experience -we’ve been doing it all year long, just playing our game and doing our thing,” Irish senior Josh Sciba said. “And hopefully that will be enough to win our playoff series.”

Another critical piece of the playoff pie with which Notre Dame will have to adjust, Jackson said, is the giant leap in intensity that the postseason brings. And that is something Alaska has already had a week to encounter, adjust and thrive under.

“Our guys are going to be prepared to play,” Jackson said. “But are they going to be prepared to play at that level that Alaska is probably going to be at? I don’t know that.”

Irish goalie Dave Brown will be in net for the Irish from here to the end of the season and – with a two-week layover since his last game – he is more than rested, Jackson said.

Wylie Rogers will most likely suit up between the pipes for Alaska. Wylie sports a 9-3 career postseason record and is coming off a relatively strong second half of the season after he struggled and split time in the first half. Rogers stonewalled Notre Dame in last year’s playoffs, shutting out the Irish in one game and allowing only one goal in the entire series.

A lot is at stake this weekend for the Irish, including a prime No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a shot at their first-ever CCHA playoff title. But Alaska is a large roadblock on the road to Detroit.

“I want these kids to get the chance to experience playing down at Joe Louis and hopefully have some success there,” Jackson said. “But we got to worry about Friday night before that’s possible.”

The puck will drop Friday at 7:35 p.m., Saturday at 7:05 p.m. and Sunday at 7:05 p.m. (if necessary).