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Hockey: Ferris State to present challenge

Jack Hefferon | Thursday, February 9, 2012

The journey has not been easy for No. 9/9 Notre Dame this season, as they’ve fought through the grind of playing a brutal CCHA schedule. The road doesn’t get any easier this weekend, as the Irish will take on conference leader No. 5/6 Ferris State in a crucial home-and-home series with serious playoff implications.

Notre Dame (16-11-3, 11-8-3-0 CCHA) will hope to rebound against the Bulldogs (18-8-4, 12-6-4-1) after a disappointing end to last weekend’s series against the CCHA cellar dwellers, Bowling Green. After beating the Falcons on Friday night, the Irish surrendered a third-period lead on Saturday and lost 3-2.

With only six games left in conference play, Irish coach Jeff Jackson said his players are focused on finishing each game strong, and ensuring the team doesn’t let any more points slip away.

“Finishing out games has been [a point of emphasis with Jackson], absolutely,” sophomore winger Anders Lee said. “Bowling Green came in in the third period and they beat us. I don’t know if it was a mental lapse, or maybe [we] just stopped bearing down a little bit, but right now the most important thing is Ferris State, and we’ll learn from that mistake.”

The Bulldogs will challenge the Irish in every facet of the game, particularly with their defense. Notorious for its physical play, Ferris St. drops their wingers down low on defense, which clogs the zone and forces teams to shoot from the point. The scheme has puzzled offenses all year, and the Bulldogs 2.30 goals against average puts their defense in the top 10 nationally.

“They’re a high energy team, and they play really well defensively,” Lee said. “It’s hard to move the puck on them, so we just have to get the puck to the net and outwork them. You have to do a combination of both playing and taking what they give you, and get in there and hammer and cycle the puck and work it out to our defensemen.”

The job will be even tougher for the Irish on Saturday night, when they travel to the hostile environment of Ewigleben Arena, one of the toughest venues in the country. The bandbox building packs the fans close to the ice, and its small ice surface makes scoring on the Bulldogs nearly impossible. Combined with the challenges of travel and playing two straight physical games, Saturday’s matchup will be the ultimate test of whether the Irish can close out a series.

“[Saturday's game] is not going to be easy, that’s for sure,” Lee said. “Ferris State has got a great crowd at home, and they’ve got that small little rink, so they play well at home, but we

want to go in there and try to take three points.”

This weekend’s games take on even more importance with the current state of the CCHA standings. Notre Dame sits in a tie for fourth in the conference, but just six points separate the top eight teams. With the season drawing to a close, each game will be crucial as the Irish aim to lock in a high seed and first-round bye at the conference tournament.

“This is the time of the year when you’ve got to be playing your best hockey, and hopefully we’ll be nearing our peak in the next few weeks,” Lee said. “These are big huge games that are basically playoffs at this point, and are going to decide a lot later on. We’re approaching every one like a must-win.”

Notre Dame and Ferris St. will face off Friday night at the Compton Family Ice Arena, and Saturday at Ewigleben Arena in Big Rapids, Mich. The puck will drop both nights at 7:05 p.m.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu