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No. 5 Michigan awaits the Irish arrival

Justin Schuver | Friday, December 3, 2004

While Irish students prepare to get ready for final exams, the Notre Dame hockey team is getting ready for a major test of its own.

Notre Dame (3-6-4, 2-5-3 in the CCHA) faces conference powerhouse No. 5 Michigan (9-4-1, 7-1-0) in a two-game home-and-home series this weekend. The Irish will travel to Ann Arbor for a game tonight before returning to the Joyce Center for the second game of the series on Saturday.

The Irish shocked Michigan near the end of last season, sweeping the Wolverines in a two-game series at the Joyce Center by scores of 4-1 and 5-2 in February. Notre Dame also won in its last trip to Michigan’s Yost Arena – a 4-3 victory on Nov. 23, 2002.

Notre Dame comes into the game after a split on the road last weekend against Alaska Fairbanks. The Irish won the first game in that series by a score of 3-2 before falling in the second game by the same score.

The Wolverines, meanwhile, are in a bit of a slump, having lost their last two games. Both defeats came at the hands of ranked teams, however, as Michigan lost 5-1 to No. 2 Minnesota and 3-1 to No. 3 Wisconsin at the College Hockey Showcase last weekend.

“I think you can couple [Michigan’s thoughts of revenge over last year’s sweep] with the fact that they lost two games this weekend,” Irish coach Dave Poulin said. “But Michigan is always a good team, and it shouldn’t take them long to get back where they need to be. I’d still say that last season is probably in the back of their minds, though.”

Both losses came to non-conference teams, however, so the Wolverines have maintained their second-place position on the CCHA standings with 14 points, one point behind leader Ohio State. Notre Dame’s nine points is currently tied for eighth in the conference with Miami of Ohio and Bowling Green.

Last season, the Irish were aided in their sweep of the Wolverines when star goalie Al Montoya was injured early in the first game of the weekend and did not play at all in the second game. Montoya, a junior who was picked sixth in this year’s NHL entry draft by the New York Rangers, is healthy and is expected to be in net in this weekend’s matchup.

He has had a bit of a slow start to this season, only collecting a .893 save percentage and a 2.69 goals against average, ranking him 10th in the league in both categories. Irish senior goalie Morgan Cey, by comparison, has a 2.44 GAA and a .929 save percentage.

“In the tapes that we saw there were a lot of rush goals [against Michigan] so that might have affected his numbers a bit,” Poulin said. “He’s still the real deal. Michigan has a unique way of only bringing in one goalie every four years and having him start his whole career, with guys like Steve Shields and Marty Turco and now Montoya.

“They’ve maybe been a bit lucky that there haven’t been any major injuries, but what they’ve been doing with their goalies has worked for many years.”

Even without the expected performance from its star goalie, Michigan is still able to win games by virtue of its explosive offense. The Wolverines average 3.64 goals per game, third in the CCHA, compared to Notre Dame’s last place 1.92 goals per game.

The Michigan offense is led by talented sophomore T.J. Hensick, the 2003-04 CCHA rookie of the year, and junior forward Jeff Tambellini, who have each scored 16 points so far this season (both have scored six goals and collected 10 assists).

The Wolverines also sport one of the league’s most talented offensive defenseman in senior Eric Wermer. Wermer’s 11 points (three goals, eight assists) rank second in the league in scoring among defensemen.

“They’re a very skilled team – I think they’ve got something like 14 draft picks and 10 are forwards,” Poulin said. “But we’ve been working on our defense as well, daily. We simply have to work harder at getting the puck to the net and scoring some sloppy goals.

“Sometimes when you don’t score you try to make things perfect, and we just need to get some ugly goals. They count just as much as pretty ones.”

The Irish face Michigan at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor tonight with puck drop scheduled for 7:35 p.m. Notre Dame then returns home to face the Wolverines at the Joyce Center on Saturday with a scheduled 7:05 p.m. face-off.