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Icers want to get back on track

Justin Schuver | Friday, November 12, 2004

The last time the Irish and Western Michigan squared off, Jason Paige scored a game-winning goal 12:35 into overtime, and Notre Dame took game three of the best-of-three CCHA first-round playoff series on Mar. 14.

Paige’s goal put the Irish into the Super Six. More importantly, the goal played a major role in helping Notre Dame reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in the program’s history.

Now, the Irish would just like to get back on the wining track against the Broncos.

Notre Dame (1-5-3, 0-4-2 CCHA) squares off against Western Michigan (4-4-0, 2-4-0) in a two-game road series this weekend.

The Irish have not won a conference game this season. They jumped out to a 3-0 lead against Bowling Green on Nov. 5, only to watch that lead disappear and the team barely survive with a 4-4 tie.

The four Irish goals in that game were a season-high, as Notre Dame’s offense has been anemic to start the season. The team averages just 1.67 goals per game.

The Irish are off to their worst start since opening the 1995-96 season with a 1-8-0 record. After losing six seniors from last year’s class, the team expected to struggle out of the gate, but this kind of start was not what coach Dave Poulin had in mind. Even so, the coach has seen things in recent practice and game situations that excite him.

“I think that our offense will improve because we’ve been having better practices,” Poulin said. “Confidence grows in practice, and then transfers usually onto the ice. I think we’re really starting to come up with some line combinations, as well.

“After losing so many guys, we weren’t sure what our lines would be coming into this season, and now five weeks in I think we’re starting to see some combinations really develop.”

The team’s strength coming into the season – goaltending – has been inconsistent, as well. Sophomore Dave Brown has struggled, while senior Morgan Cey had been nearly unbeatable in net until the 4-4 tie, when he allowed four goals on just 19 shots.

But Poulin knows he has two proven net-minders on his team, and the coach is equally willing to start either one.

“I think [the goalies’] confidence is all right,” Poulin said. “Morgan was very upset about his play on Friday, because he thought the rest of the team played well enough to win and he couldn’t give him the kind of goaltending they’ve been used to with him. David will go [tonight], and we’re fully expecting him to bounce back and have the kind of good performances he’s had in the past.”

This weekend’s games will also be a homecoming of sorts for Irish forward Evan Rankin, a freshman off to a terrific start. The native of Portage, Mich. – a suburb of Kalamazoo, the home of Western Michigan – has already endeared himself to his coach and teammates with a style of play that relies on both hustle and skill.

Rankin has two goals so far this year, tying him for second on the team. He has also picked up one assist.

“Evan’s been talking about this series ever since he got on campus,” Poulin said. “He’s really looking forward to going back to see his home again..”

Western Michigan is coming off a sweep of NCAA tournament team Niagara last weekend. The Broncos knocked off the Purple Eagles 4-3 on Nov. 5 and completed the sweep with a 4-1 victory on Nov. 6.

Freshman goalie Daniel Bellisimo picked up both Broncos victories. Bellisimo has been the team’s primary starter in net so far. His 3.47 goals-against average and .894 save percentage lead the team.

Eric Marvin, a veteran who was in net when Paige scored his decisive goal the last time the Broncos and Irish met, is the backup with a 4.15 GAA and .855 save percentage.

Like the Irish, the Broncos have had difficulty scoring goals as a team. Unlike the Irish, Western Michigan has a definite go-to guy in forward Brett Walton, who leads the team with 17 points (nine goals, eight assists) and is tied for the lead in the CCHA in scoring.

“[Walton] sees the ice really well and controls the speed of the game through his puck possession,” Poulin said. “Plus, he’s essentially the one who shoots the puck most often on the power play, and he’s done a great job on capitalizing on those chances.”