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Hockey: Nanooks await, 5,000 miles away

Matt Gamber | Friday, February 15, 2008

Believe it or not, the No. 9 Irish have traveled 4,880 miles to arrive at this weekend’s series – just to play a conference game.

Notre Dame begins a two-game set with Alaska (8-16-4, 8-13-3 CCHA) tonight at 11. South Bend time in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the teams will meet at the same time tomorrow night.

While Alaska will attempt to exact revenge on the Irish for ending its season in the first round of the CCHA playoffs a year ago, Notre Dame (20-10-2, 13-7-2) must focus yet again on escaping a 4-6-2 skid that dates back to a Dec. 29 loss to Massachusetts.

“We all know we’ve got to get back on track,” junior goalie Jordan Pearce said. “I wouldn’t say we’re worried or desperate, but everyone’s putting in the extra effort in practice. We’ve had two great practices [this week], both high energy and intense, so I think we’re ready to get things going.”

The Irish will attempt to overcome potential symptoms of jet lag following a journey that began with the team’s bus ride to Chicago on Wednesday, continued with Thursday’s flight from Chicago to Seattle, and ended with the drive to Fairbanks from Anchorage, where the Irish landed via a flight from Seattle.

“The travel is more of a frame of mind. It’s really not an issue unless you make one out of it,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. “As long as we follow the proper procedures as far as rest and hydration, we should be OK.”

While most of the Irish spent the early part of this week preparing for a trek into unfamiliar territory, Pearce, an Anchorage native, was focused on a return to his childhood roots.

“[Fairbanks] is about a six-hour drive from Anchorage, but Alaska’s Alaska. It’s all where I grew up and played a lot of my youth hockey,” Pearce said. “For my parents and a lot of the extended family all planning on making the trip up there, it’ll be a neat experience.”

Alaska’s Olympic rink, which is 15 feet wider than an NHL or NCAA rink, will force the Irish to be wary of straying too far outside, Jackson said.

“When you play in the Olympic sheet, you really have to make sure you don’t get caught playing outside the dots offensively or defensively,” Jackson said. “If you do on the offensive side of the puck, you’re not going to generate much offense and you’ll be stuck playing perimeter hockey. If you’re drawn outside the dots defensively, that’s when they may find opportunities we shouldn’t normally give up because of the additional ice.”

The wider ice surface will change up the passing and shooting lanes, and it gives an advantage to the quicker skaters. Defenders will be less conservative, and there will be less hitting because if the man with the puck gets loose, there may be no catching him.

Between the long travel and the changes in rink size, this weekend might not look like the most ideal for the Irish to snap out of their winter doldrums. Notre Dame won all six of its meetings with Alaska a year ago, but after a slow start under first-year coach Doc DelCastillo, the Nanooks have won three of four and beat Ferris State earlier in the season – a team that beat the Irish 5-3 last Friday before the teams played to a 2-2 tie on Saturday.

“They’ve had some big wins in the second half here, and they’ll play very tenacious,” Jackson said. “They’ll be aggressive in and around the net … I’m sure they’ll be quick to the puck and try to use the additional ice of the Olympic sheet.”

With only four conference games after this weekend, the Irish, who currently hold a four-point advantage over Nebraska-Omaha for fourth place in the CCHA, are looking to regain the early-season form that helped them win 10 of their first 12 conference match-ups.

“We need to let last weekend [against Ferris State] go, let the last couple games get out of our minds, and not be stressed or worried about the NCAA [tournament] or being on the bubble,” Pearce said. “It’s definitely just about being focused on the game at hand … and not letting the past or future dictate how you play in the present