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Hockey: ND meets familiar foe to open playoffs

Chris Khorey | Friday, March 3, 2006

It’s possible that Notre Dame and Alaska-Fairbanks have forgotten that other college hockey teams even exist.

The Irish and Nanooks, who squared off for two games last weekend at the Joyce Center in each team’s regular season finale, will play again at the same arena in a three-game series tonight, Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday in the first round of the CCHA playoffs.

Tonight’s contest will begin at 7:35 at the Joyce Center.

“It’s an interesting scenario, to play four games, possibly five, in a row against one team in the same place,” Fairbanks coach Tavis MacMillan said.

Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said game planning is more complicated in a rematch scenario.

“You know their strengths and weaknesses and you figure out your strengths and weaknesses against them,” Jackson said. “It’s easier to some extent but it can also be more difficult because you have to get into more detail.

“We have to make some adjustments based on their strengths.”

The Irish and Nanooks split last weekend, with Notre Dame taking a 4-1 decision Friday and Fairbanks winning 2-1 Saturday. The two teams ended the regular season tied for eighth in the twelve-team CCHA with 26 points, but the 5-3 advantage in head-to-head goals for the Irish gave them home ice.

Although the two teams are evenly matched record-wise, they use very different styles of play. Fairbanks, whose players own a 15-20 pound weight advantage on average over the Irish, will try to force the puck into the corners and use players like 6-3, 223 pound left wing Kyle Greentree and 6-3, 226 pound left wing Jordan Emmerson to dig it back out and create scoring chances.

Notre Dame captain and right wing T.J. Jindra said Fairbanks’ aggressive and physical style of play reflects the size advantage they have over most opponents.

“They like to dump the puck and get on our defenseman, so we have to see that and we have to make adjustments for that,” he said.

Jackson said after seeing the Nanooks strategy last weekend his team has been preparing in practice to counter it.

“I think we have to come up with ways to avoid allowing them to be overly physical with us,” Jackson said. “If we move right and support the puck right, we can avoid hits.”

Along the front line, the Irish have gotten their most production this season from left wing Mike Walsh, center Josh Sciba and right wing Erik Condra. The trio has combined for 33 goals and 80 points this season.

Last Friday, however, offensive production came from a much more unlikely source. The little used fourth line of left wing Garrett Regan, center Tony Gill and right wing Evan Rankin combined for two of Notre Dame’s four goals – both in the first period. Regan scored his third career goal on assists from Rankin and Gill, and Rankin scored his eighth career goal on a pass from defenseman Wes O’Neill.

“A fourth line has to have some kind of identity to it,” Jackson said. “They’re not big but they have a lot of energy and they feed off each other well. Getting a couple goals out of those guys was great.”

The Nanooks countered the early scoring burst from Notre Dame’s fourth line by going to a three-line rotation after Rankin’s goal. Jackson responded by matching his lines against those sent out by MacMillan and giving his fourth line little to no playing time for the rest of the series. Jackson said he will not employ that strategy this weekend.

“My hope is to go into the weekend playing four lines, regardless of what they do,” he said.

In net, Notre Dame will rely on junior Dave Brown, who has started 29 times this season and given up 2.50 goals per contest. He was named February’s CCHA Player of the Month Wednesday.

Fairbanks has rotated freshman Chad Johnson and sophomore Wylie Rogers in goal for most of this season. While Johnson has the lower save percentage – 2.55 to Rogers’ 2.61 – and started Friday’s game against the Irish, he was pulled in favor of the sophomore after allowing three goals in the first period. Rogers also started Saturday’s contest, but MacMillan did not say who will start this weekend.

Regardless, Jackson said his team will be facing quality goaltending.

“They’ve got a great 1-2 punch,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see them come back with Johnson. We can’t overlook goaltending as one of their strengths.”

With Junior Parents Weekend, Bengal Bouts and the Midwest Conference Fencing Championships requiring the temperature to be turned up in the Joyce Center Fieldhouse in the last two weeks, Jackson said he has been disappointed with the quality of his team’s home playing surface – calling it “the worst of the season” after Friday’s game.

“It has nothing to do with our personnel, it just has to do with our environment,” he said. “It’s not fair for [Bengal Bouts] to freeze or for us to have bad ice. It’s not our rink staff’s fault, they’re doing the best with what they have to work with.”

Warmer temperatures in an ice rink soften the ice and make it uneven, a fact that impacts the game dramatically, Jindra said.

“If it’s soft, you have to protect the puck more,” he said. “The chances of turning the puck over when it’s in the corner are much greater. Still, both teams have to skate on the ice. It’s the same ice for both teams.”

Rather than make the almost 8,000 mile round trip back and forth to central Alaska, the Nanooks chose to spend the week in South Bend, practicing at the Joyce Center and communicating with their professors via email.

“Our team is more comfortable on the road than we are at home, to some extent,” MacMillan said of his travel-hardened squad.

The closest CCHA competition for the Nanooks is Northern Michigan, located 3,200 miles away in Marquette, Mich. Fairbanks joined the CCHA before the 1995-96 season, competing as an independent before that. The only other Alaska school that plays Division 1 hockey, Alaska-Anchorage, competes in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA).

The Irish and Nanooks will face off at 7:35 tonight. Saturday’s game and Sunday’s game, if necessary, will start at 7:05.