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Hockey: No. 2 Notre Dame vies for top ranking at BGSU

Kyle Cassily | Tuesday, February 6, 2007

A No. 2 unanimous national ranking with several first-place votes in the last month of a long regular season means nothing. At least that’s what the Irish say.

“The ranking is insignificant until if and when we get to Joe Louis Arena – and having to win there,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said in reference to the CCHA semifinals and championship in Detroit in March.

Coaches usually walk a modest line, but their players can sometimes be a little more forthcoming. Right?

“Rankings are nice – they’re nice to see sometimes – but we try to focus on every weekend coming up,” sophomore left wing Garrett Regan said. “Right now where we’re ranked isn’t as important. Obviously we just want to keep playing as well as we can, and the rankings will take care of themselves.”

Guess not.

But, whether they like it or not, the Irish name will come up across the country this weekend whenever national rankings are discussed, as the CCHA-leading icers travel to Bowling Green for a two-game series against the last-place Falcons. The first-ever No. 1 ranking in program history could hang on the Irish mantle, if only temporarily, with a sweep – and a little bit of Black Bear help.

If No. 9 Maine can take one – or both ends – of a bitter two-game series in the tiny village of Durham, N.H., against its archrival No. 1 New Hampshire this weekend, the pollsters could vault the Irish ahead of the Wildcats.

“To be [the] No. 1 ranked team, it doesn’t bother me,” Jackson said. “But fame is fleeting.”

The Irish (21-5-2, 15-3-2 CCHA) come into the series against Bowling Green (5-22-1, 3-17-1 CCHA) after an emotional win and tie at home with No. 10 Miami last weekend that strengthened Notre Dame’s iron grip on first place in the CCHA. With eight games remaining in the regular season, the Irish have a three-point lead over Miami and a four-point lead over third-place Michigan.

The “nation’s best” label is not the only milestone possible for the Irish this weekend. With one more conference win, Notre Dame will set a program record with 16 league wins in one season – currently the Irish are tied with the 1981-82 and 1998-99 teams at 15 wins.

“We’ve proved we can play with pretty much everybody we’ve played,” Jackson said. “We haven’t played New Hampshire or Minnesota or those teams. But within our conference we’ve shown we can play pretty much against anybody.”

Bowling Green has had very few bright spots in a sub-par season, but one came last weekend when the Falcons picked up a 2-2 tie against Alaska. The Falcons have only two scorers with more than 20 points – Jonathan Matsumoto (24) and Derek Whitmore (20) – and are in last place not only in the standings, but also in team offense (1.86 goals per game), team defense (4.03 goals per game) and on the power play (.088 success percentage).

Falcons goaltenders Jimmy Spratt and Eddie Neville have split time and the brunt of the opposition’s offense this season, and it shows in their numbers. Spratt has a 3.82 goals against average with a 4-15-1 record, while Neville owns a 4.18 GAA.

The Irish met the Falcons in a two-game home series earlier in the season with Notre Dame sweeping 5-2 and 4-0, but that hasn’t kept Jackson from fretting more over this weekend than over Miami.

“I get more nervous about these games, than I do about Miami of Ohio because I know our guys will be as ready to play as they need to be [against Miami],” he said. “This is part of us becoming a good team, being a good team is going to be able to respond coming off a tough weekend against Miami and then going into Bowling Green, playing a team that’s last in the standings.”

Irish goalie Dave Brown – who came up big against the RedHawks with 40 saves on 43 shots faced in two games – will most likely start Friday night against the Falcons, but Saturday’s starting goalie depends on several factors, Jackson said.

It depends on the number of shots Brown faces in the first game and if he appears fresh when the time comes Saturday, Jackson said.

Jackson said that in order to help keep Brown physically and mentally ready, he gives the goaltender days off where he does not have to put on his equipment, but only does cardiovascular training.

“Keeping him from putting his equipment on everyday is the key,” Jackson said.

The puck will drop in both games at 7:05 p.m., but it will not televised locally.