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Hockey: Eagles could be the cure for ailing Irish

Matt Gamber | Friday, January 25, 2008

Heading into a weekend home-and-home series with conference foe Bowling Green, something’s got to give for struggling No. 9 Notre Dame.

Not much has gone right lately for coach Jeff Jackson and the Irish, who are in the midst of a 2-5-1 slide, are coming off consecutive losses for the first time in nearly two years and have seen their power-play unit give up more goals than it has scored during an 0-for-38 stretch.

That said, Notre Dame has dominated the No. 21 Falcons (12-10-0, 9-7-0 CCHA) recently, posting a 9-0-1 mark over the last 10 meetings, including a pair of wins earlier this season. The Falcons are surging, however, and now find themselves just five points behind the fourth-place Irish, who are clinging to a top-four slot in the conference, with which comes a first-round bye in the CCHA tournament.

“I expect it to be a playoff-type situation because they’re playing at a very high level right now,” Jackson said of the Falcons, who will bring a “quick, frantic style of play” to the Joyce Center for tonight’s 7:30 start. “They have had a lot of success and gained a lot of confidence, and it’s up to us to take the style of play we want into this type of game.”

After a tough weekend series with No. 1 Michigan, in which the Irish lost a 3-2 heartbreaker on Friday before getting waxed 5-1 on Saturday, Jackson gave his frustrated club just what it needed: not extra rink-time, not added power-play drills, nor bonus conditioning, but a little game of “shinny.”

“We came in Monday not sure exactly what we were going to do,” said junior right wing Erik Condra, who leads the Irish in scoring with 27 points. “Coach surprised us by saying we should go out and have some fun out on the pond like we used to when we were younger, so we got our mittens and hats and hooded sweatshirts and went out there. … Playing six-on-six, just having fun, having some hot cocoa out there – just getting back to our roots.”

The timing may have been just right for a quick break from the daily grind of a long, grueling season, as Condra believes the time is now for the Irish to start elevating their game to a new level.

“This is the weekend we need to start making a push for the end of the season,” Condra said. “We’re shooting for a playoff spot and a top-four seed in our league, and this weekend needs to start us off right.”

Much has been made of the power play’s current dire straits, which appeared to hit rock-bottom by giving up a short-handed goal in Saturday’s loss to Michigan. Consistency’s the word for Jackson, and he saw signs that the unit’s coming around.

“We’re getting some scoring chances, and that’s all we can really ask,” said Jackson, who hinted at minor changes in personnel and strategy around the net. “Right now it’s about getting the puck and trying to establish some pressure at the net. Those are the basics of the power play, and we have to make sure we’re doing those things on a more consistent basis.”

Puck control will be crucial in thwarting the Falcons’ fast-paced, transition attack, which is led by senior forward Derek Whitmore, Bowling Green’s leading scorer (24 points, 19 goals). Defenseman Kevin Schmidt (15 assists) and forward James Perkin (13 assists) will try early and often to get the puck to Whitmore, who has scored 18 of his 24 points in Bowling Green victories.

“Looking back to last year, we didn’t have that many close, tough games,” Irish senior defenseman Brock Sheahan said. “A lot of things seemed to go our way, and that might’ve hurt us in the NCAA Tournament. We’ve been facing a lot more adversity this year, and hopefully that will help us in the long run.”