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Hockey: Irish take long journey to face tough Alaskan competition

Jack Hefferon | Thursday, January 26, 2012

No. 4 Notre Dame has cooled off recently, following up a four-game winning streak by losing three of its last four. This weekend, the team travels to take on Alaska’s notoriously stingy defense in a pair of important conference games.

Alaska (8-12-4, 5-11-4 CCHA) may sit near the bottom of the conference standings, but the trip to Fairbanks is a notoriously difficult one. Five of the Nanooks’ eight wins have come at home, with Alaska stealing points from conference powers like Michigan and Western Michigan in the friendly confines of the Carlson Center. For the Irish (14-9-3, 9-6-3), the grueling journey north began Tuesday, a day earlier than normal.

“It’s a marathon,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said via phone. “We came up a day early because of the potential for bad weather, and it is a long trip. We took off from Chicago at 9:30 Wednesday morning, and got here at 5:30, Alaska Time. That’s a 12-hour trip. That said, it gives us the opportunity to get acclimated to the time change and the weather, and practice up here.”

Notre Dame will use some of that practice time to solve Alaska’s defense, one of the top units in college hockey. Nanooks senior goaltender Scott Greenham ranks fifth in the nation in shutouts, and the team’s 2.58 goals-against average places its defense in the top-20. For Jackson, the key to finding the net will lie in playing smart and matching Alaska’s work rate.

“[Alaska] competes extremely hard, and they execute their systems as good as anyone in the league,” he said. “We need to do a good job of supporting the puck, and getting people in front of net. We’ll have to work hard to get that first goal, and play 60 solid minutes of hockey.”

While frigid Fairbanks is by far the most remote location the Irish will play in this year, it will be a homecoming for Notre Dame’s two native Alaskans. One of those players is sophomore goaltender and Anchorage native Steven Summerhays, who has taken over for junior Mike Johnson as the primary goalie with inspired play as of late. Summerhays will get at least one start in front of his friends and family this weekend, but beyond that Notre Dame’s situation in the crease is uncertain.

“Steven has made it a lot harder for us with the way he’s played,” Jackson said. “Mike has played some great games for us too, and they’re both very much in the mix going forward.”

With just a few series left before the CCHA playoffs, Notre Dame’s main focus for the weekend will be to leave town Sunday with two wins and six valuable points in the conference standings. However, as the games grow more important towards the end of the year, Jackson is also looking for a more even and consistent performance from his team.

“We haven’t been as consistent as we’d like over the past few games,” he said. “We’ve been defending better, and our goaltending has improved, but now our special teams have taken a hit. It’s about getting our game together as a team and playing consistent hockey.”

The Irish and Nanooks will face off Friday and Saturday in Alaska’s Carlson Center. The puck will drop both nights at 11:05 p.m. Eastern Time.