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ND HOCKEY: No. 1 Irish can lock up conference

Dan Murphy | Friday, February 16, 2007

Notre Dame makes the long trip to Fairbanks, Alaska this weekend with the opportunity to lock up the program’s first ever CCHA regular season title in a two-game series with the Nanooks.

With two wins the No. 1 Irish (24-5-3, 18-3-3 in CCHA) will increase their point total to 43 on the season, putting them out of the reach of second place Miami. The RedHawks have 34 points with four conference games (eight possible points) remaining on their schedule.

“Our main focus is going up there and getting four points and that’s what we’re looking to accomplish,” senior goaltender Dave Brown said.

Brown stopped 38-of-41 shots against Alaska (9-15-6, 7-12-5 in CCHA) earlier in the season, earning two victories at the Joyce Center. The Nanooks came into that weekend ranked No. 14 in the country, but have won only three of their last 16 games since coming to South Bend. They currently sit in ninth place in the CCHA standing and will be battling for a home playoff series this weekend.

“It’s hard to say what has happened since [we played], but they still scare me from a coach’s perspective,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said.

Alaska coach Tavis McMillan has a great deal of respect for Jackson and the rest of the Irish.

“Top offense, top defense, top goalie, top coach in the country – what else do you want to bring at us?” McMillan said. “To compete against [the best] is what makes sports not only exciting, but valuable to society. I want to play Notre Dames every weekend. Otherwise you would be playing intramural volleyball.”

In the 2006 playoffs, Alaska was forced to make the trip to Notre Dame for its first round matchup. The Nanooks swept the Irish in a series that developed bad blood between the two teams.

“Those guys play a really chippy style of hockey, not necessarily a clean style of hockey – which is sort of like me – so it will definitely be a good series up there,” junior defenseman Brock Sheahan said.

Sheahan, who lives in Lethbridge, Alberta, is the team’s only native of Western Canada – an area the Nanooks recruit heavily. He has played with all but one of the members of the Alaska club, Brandon Knelsen, since he was in peewees.

“Most of them are good guys, but they can be a little different on the ice,” he said. “They won’t be my buddies on the ice, that’s for sure.”

The ice surface at the Carlson Center, Alaska’s home rink, is slightly larger than what Notre Dame has played on all year long. They play on an Olympic-sized sheet, which is 200 feet by 100 feet, as compared to the standard NHL-sized rinks used in most college hockey arenas (200 by 85).

Notre Dame will step up the intensity on its forecheck throughout the game in order to take advantage of the different size ice, as well as the passive style of play that Alaska has adopted this season.

“We are going to be a little more aggressive, because they can kind of lull you to sleep,” Sheahan said. “We just want to make sure we play our game.”

The games will be held at 7:05 AKT both nights, but Friday night’s game will be broadcast on tape delay on WHME 46 in South Bend at 9:30 a.m. Saturday.