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Icers will face off with UM

Justin Schuver | Friday, February 18, 2005

The Irish are hoping a change of scenery will help them finish the regular season on the right track.

Notre Dame (5-21-6, 3-16-5 in the CCHA) faces first-place No. 6/5 Michigan (22-7-3, 19-3-2) twice this weekend, first in Fort Wayne’s Allen County Memorial Stadium Friday and then in Ann Arbor, Mich. Saturday.

“This is a great hockey town,” Poulin said of Fort Wayne. “This isn’t one of those multipurpose arenas; this is a full-fledged hockey building. The town is really excited that we’re here and they’re expecting a sellout on Friday.”

Michigan is ranked sixth in the nation in the USA Today poll and fifth overall in the U.S. College Hockey Online/CSTV poll, and the Wolverines are one point ahead of Ohio State for first place in the CCHA standings. Notre Dame currently is 12th with just 11 total points compared to Michigan’s 40.

Notre Dame last played the Wolverines in a home-and-home series on Dec. 3-4, dropping the first game by a score of 6-1 and the second 8-0. Those 14 goals are still the most the Irish have given up in a two-game series this season.

The Irish are coming off a disappointing weekend, in which they dropped a pair of games to Ferris State at home. The Bulldogs had come into the series only one point ahead of Notre Dame for 11th in the conference, but now have a comfortable lead on the Irish.

Ferris State defeated Notre Dame 4-3 on Friday in a heartbreaking loss for the Irish as Ferris State’s Matt Verdone scored a shorthanded goal with less than a minute left in the game to give the Bulldogs the victory. Saturday, Notre Dame again allowed four goals to the Bulldogs – all in the second period – as Ferris State won 4-2.

The Irish have now failed to win in 13 straight games, with their last victory coming at home against Rensselaer Jan. 2. Notre Dame’s last conference victory was a Dec. 10 3-2 overtime victory against Michigan State.

Michigan comes into this weekend’s games on a high note, having taken two games on the road against Nebraska-Omaha. The Wolverines defeated the Mavericks 6-4 Friday and survived a 4-3 nailbiter Saturday.

Michigan’s strength all season has been its offense, which is currently ranked first in the CCHA with a 4.09 goals per game average – Notre Dame is 12th with just 1.59 goals per game. But the Wolverines’ defense hasn’t been too shabby, either, with goalie Al Montoya headlining a defense that has only allowed 2.62 goals per game, fourth in the conference.

Montoya, the CCHA’s leading draft pick last season, has actually been in a bit of a slump during the regular season, carrying a 2.69 GAA and a dismal .893 save percentage. But his defense has made life easy for him, only allowing their opponents to shoot 25.9 shots per game against the junior netminder.

“You look at this team and they have the ability to outscore opponents,” Poulin said. “They don’t have to win games 1-0. But as a coach, if I’m looking at a goalie there’s only one statistic I’m concerned with and that’s wins.

“Montoya might not have the numbers this year, but he’s putting up the W’s.”

Sophomore forward T.J. Hensick, last year’s CCHA rookie of the year, paces the team’s offense with 41 points (19 goals, 22 assists). Hensick is the second-leading scorer in the CCHA, two other Michigan forwards are in the conference’s top ten – Jeff Tambellini (36 points) and Milan Gajic (30 points).

The team’s real strength offensively is in its balance – 13 different players have scored 17 points or more this season.

“Their depth and quality of depth is just remarkable,” Poulin said. “They’ve got 10 seniors and 10 guys who were drafted, and that combination of skill and depth is what you see in championship-caliber teams.”

Notre Dame faces Michigan at 8:05 p.m. at Fort Wayne’s Allen County Memorial Stadium Friday. The rematch is Saturday at Yost Field House in Ann Arbor at 7:35 p.m.