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Hockey: Irish finish regular season against Western Michigan

Matt Gamber | Thursday, February 28, 2008

Coming off another disappointing weekend conference series, time is running out on No. 11 Notre Dame (21-11-4, 14-8-4 CCHA).

The schedule couldn’t have worked out much better for the Irish, though, who are 5-7-4 in the months of January and February but catch a break by closing out the regular season with a home-and-home series against conference basement-dweller Western Michigan (7-24-3, 3-21-2 CCHA).

That’s no guarantee of success, however, as Notre Dame has managed only one win in its last six games – all against unranked conference foes.

“It just feels like we’re running on a treadmill,” junior goalie Jordan Pearce said. “We’re working hard, working hard, and we’re just not getting any goals. I think everyone knows they’ll come, so we just need to keep our heads up and remain confident even though we’ve been struggling as of late.”

Notre Dame will honor its five seniors following Saturday night’s 7:05 p.m. game and will travel for Friday night’s 7:35 p.m. contest at Western Michigan’s Lawson Arena, recognized as one of college hockey’s loudest

“One of our focuses is to come out and have a strong first period, a strong first 10 minutes, just to weather the storm [of the Broncos’ student section],” Pearce said. “Especially it being their senior night, we just need to let the game settle down and allow ourselves to take over from there.”

For that to happen, an offense that hasn’t scored more than twice in a game since a 5-3 loss to Ferris State on Feb. 8 needs to pick itself up.

Pearce leads the CCHA with a 1.82 goals-against average in conference games, and he has performed admirably throughout the team’s two-month free-fall. The junior netminder has allowed more than two goals in one game just twice during that stretch, and he holds an impressive 1.53 goals-against average in his last 15 starts – yet has just five wins to show for his efforts.

“It’s a little straining on you knowing going into games that I probably have to stop all [the opponent’s shots] or keep it down to one [goal], and I feel like it is a lot of added pressure,” said Pearce, who has increased both his mental and physical preparations to elevate his game. “In the beginning of the year when we were scoring, I felt really confident in the team in front of me that if I let a goal or two in early that I’d be fine and could relax because we’d end up putting four in.

“I’m sure our offense will figure it out and start scoring some goals, though. I’m not too panicky or freaking out, but it is nice when you have offensive support.”

Notre Dame’s scoring woes certainly don’t stem from a lack of chances. In their last four games alone, the Irish have attempted 132 shots (33 per game) but have managed only six goals – including scoring just once on 41 tries in a Feb. 16 tie at Alaska.

“We’re trying to pick our corners too specifically right now,” said senior right wing Evan Rankin, who scored Notre Dame’s lone goal in Friday’s 3-1 loss to Ohio State. “We just need to get our pucks to the net and bear down in front. We’ve got to knock in a few dirty goals because you know what? Ninety percent of goals in hockey are going to come from that.

“We could talk about bounces all you want, but we need to start making our own breaks, doing it for ourselves and not just relying on the bounces to win or lose games for us.”

By no means is the season lost, as the Irish have already clinched a first-round bye in the conference tournament by way of finishing fourth in the CCHA standings.

But if Notre Dame hopes to regain the form it showcased en route to a 16-4-0 record through December – which it must do not only to advance in the NCAA Tournament, but also to guarantee a berth at all – this weekend represents the last chance to do so.

“We had a good discussion about what we need to do to turn things a bit, and this is a team that’s only going to be as good as the intensity they play with,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “I’ve been talking to specific guys about their physical intensity, and the big thing is that I can hold them accountable by taking them out of the lineup, but they need to hold each other accountable to play at that level of intensity.

“These guys know what they have to do to get going again in a positive direction – its about our offensive intensity and grittiness to make improvements.”