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Hockey: Team travels to play key CCHA weekend series

By Sam Gans | Friday, February 22, 2013

No. 11 Notre Dame will face one of the toughest teams and venues in the country when it travels to Kalamazoo, Mich., this weekend for a two-game series with No. 7 Western Michigan at Lawson Arena.

Following a 2-1 victory over Miami (Ohio) at Soldier Field on Sunday, the Irish (19-12-1, 15-8-1-1 CCHA) trail the second-place Broncos (18-8-6, 14-6-4-2) by one point in the conference race with four games remaining, and are three points behind the CCHA-leading RedHawks.

The Irish clinched a top-five CCHA finish last weekend, which guarantees a first-round bye in the CCHA tournament. Notre Dame needs just one win or shootout win in its final four games to secure home-ice advantage in the second round of the conference tournament.

Irish coach Jeff Jackson said he is aware his players check other CCHA scores in the middle of a tight conference race whether he wants them to or not, but it’s critical they remain focused on their own game.

“It doesn’t matter if I mind, I’m sure they’re doing it, and they’re on the internet all the time so I’m sure that they’re looking at everything, no matter what I say,” Jackson said. “I just want them to stay focused on the process here, because the only thing that matters right now is Friday night.”

Less than a week after playing the RedHawks – the nation’s top scoring defense – the Irish will face the No. 3 scoring defense in the country when they head to Kalamazoo. Behind sophomore preseason all-CCHA goaltender Frank Slubowski, Western Michigan enters the contest allowing only 1.94 goals per game. Slubowski has started every game for the Broncos this season and ranks 11th in the nation in goals against average and second in minutes played.

Jackson said winning matters more against a tough defensive opponent than the game’s style. “It’s about great goaltending and teams that play good team defense,” Jackson said. “And that’s why, like Sunday, you have to be willing to win a game 2-1.”

A stifling defense and goalie are not the only problems Notre Dame might face this weekend. The Irish will also deal with of the toughest crowds in the CCHA at the 3,667-seat Lawson Arena.

“They’ve got a great student section – it’s like a little bandbox in there,” Jackson said. “The fans are right on top of you. … If they were my fans, I’d be happy to have them. They’re into the game and it’s a loud building.”

This will be the second series between the Irish and the defending Mason Cup-champion Broncos this season. The teams split a pair of games in the Compton Family Ice Arena in early November.

“The personnel’s the same. I’m sure the tactical end of the game’s probably fairly similar,” Jackson said of this series compared to the series in November. “It just depends on where their mindset is and where ours is, if there’s any differential.”

The Irish and Broncos face off against the Broncos at 7:35 p.m. tonight and 7:05 p.m. Saturday night at Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Contact Sam Gans at sgans@nd.edu