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Hockey: Irish look to end three-game skid

Jack Hefferon | Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Heading into their three-week long break for final exams and the holidays, the No. 7 Irish hope to give themselves an early Christmas present when they take on No. 10/9 Ferris St. in a home-and-home series this weekend.

Notre Dame (10-5-3, 7-2-3 CCHA) currently sits in the roughest stretch of its season so far, as it has followed up an 11-game unbeaten streak with three straight losses — including a 9-2 drubbing by Northeastern last Friday. But while digging out of a losing skid is always difficult, Irish coach Jeff Jackson said he believes his team is taking all the right steps to work its way back to playing winning hockey.

“The guys are [still loose]. They’re always loose. As long as they’re ready, that’s all I can ask,” Jackson said. “They’ve practiced really well so far this week. Obviously, after a couple of losses they kind of start listening again, and that’s why losing is sometimes good for you.”

One of the biggest factors in Notre Dame’s current losing streak has been its inability to score goals. After averaging four goals per game during their 11-game winning streak, the Irish have scored just five total goals in the last three games.

Jackson said a lack of secondary scoring has kept his team off the scoreboard.

“[Goal scoring] has got to be a collective effort,” Jackson said. “Scoring comes from a number of different sources on good teams. We were fairly consistent with that last year, when we were getting production from our fourth line and from our third line. That’s not happening right now. Production has predominantly come from one or two lines, and we need to get more production from our other lines. And that’s really the biggest issue right now.”

Resurrecting their high-powered offense will be especially difficult for the Irish this weekend, as they face one of the nation’s staunchest defenses in Ferris State (10-5-1, 6-5-1). The Bulldogs’ current goals against average of 1.88 is the third lowest in the NCAA, a byproduct of their conservative defensive scheme. Their defense sends both wingers down low to congest the corners and the area in front of the goal, which forces the opposition to settle for outside, low-percentage shots.

Notre Dame’s leading scorer, sophomore center Anders Lee, will be one of the key pieces in the team’s quest to rediscover the back of net.

“Ferris State is a good team,” Lee said. “They’re always high up there on the defensive side of things in the nation, and it’s a small little rink, so we’ve got to get shots on net. Right now we’ve got to just play our game and get back to the basics — and shoot the puck.”

In addition to getting back to basics, Jackson said his players will need to slow the game down and let it come to them.

“We’ve talked a lot about our poise and making plays under pressure, whether it’s on the breakout, or off a line rush, or on the powerplay. Right now we’re not responding to pressure as quickly as we should be,” he said. “It starts in practice, in my estimation. If things are challenging for you in practice, then the game comes easier.”

Notre Dame’s ability to overcome those obstacles this weekend may well become a turning point in its season. After Friday’s game in Big Rapids, Mich. and Saturday’s matchup at home, the Irish will have 21 days off until they host Boston University on New Year’s Eve. With such a long period in between games, this weekend’s series puts the pressure on the Irish and serves as the team’s last chance for a while to turn the page, start another winning streak and gain six important points in the conference standings.

“This is a huge weekend for the CCHA, especially going into our little Christmas break,” Lee said. “We just need to get back to our basics and work hard. We’ve had a good week of practice, and those games we’ve lost are done with. We’ve just got to move on.”

The Irish will kick off the weekend at Ferris State’s Ewigleben Ice Arena on Friday and will return to the Compton Family Ice Arena on Saturday. The puck will drop at 7:05 p.m. on both nights.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu