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ND Hockey: Top-ranked icers take on Nebraska-Omaha

Kyle Cassily | Friday, February 9, 2007

Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson stood near center ice at practice Thursday and blasted his players for poorly executing a defensive system.

“You can’t be strong in the neutral zone against this team,” he yelled. “You have to be great in the neutral zone.”

Jackson was referring to the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks, who play the No. 1 Irish in a two-game set starting tonight at the Joyce Center. And the second-year coach had every reason to be on edge the day before the CCHA series began – the Mavericks bring one of the nation’s most potent offenses to face off against the best defense college hockey has to offer.

Nebraska-Omaha (13-12-7, 10-9-3 CCHA) has become the fifth-best offense in the country (3.81 goals per game) behind the duo of senior forwards Scott Parse and Alex Nikiforuk, and an entire offensive unit that has lifted the Mavericks to fifth place in the CCHA, more than compensating for a lackluster defense.

“You’re going to have to defend well – I don’t care who you are – against Nebraska, they’re an offensive team,” Jackson said. “You can key on Parse, then you have Nikiforuk beating you – they have several very good players and Parse is a great player, there’s no question. If you focus on one guy, someone else will burn you.”

The Irish (23-5-2, 17-3-2 CCHA) defended well against Michigan – college hockey’s top offense with 4.40 goals per game – in a December series, allowing three goals in each of their two wins over the Wolverines, and have since lowered their goals-allowed average to 1.73 goals per game.

Irish goalie Dave Brown continues to make a strong bid for the Hobey Baker every weekend, holding the second-best goals-against average in the country (1.70) behind Vermont’s Joel Fallon (1.66). Brown’s dominance is aided by the 22.9 shots per game that his blueliners allow the opponent to get off.

“You’re not going to get many pucks past [Brown], that’s your first issue,” Mavericks coach Mike Kemp said. “They have a good, solid defensive corps and just with the system they play, they don’t give you many options. They always have numbers back.”

Another key matchup will be the battle between the Maverick power play and Irish penalty kill. The two teams met Nov. 24-25 in Omaha and split a series that saw Notre Dame lose 3-2 on a late power-play goal by defenseman Juha Uotila in the second game.

The Mavericks power play has continued to capitalize on its opponent’s mistakes, converting .217 percent of its chances. But the Irish penalty kill has made a name for itself as well, successfully running down .915 percent of its man-disadvantage situations.

“That’s part and parcel of their whole offense,” Jackson said. “The power play – you’re going to have to defend well against it too. And the best defense is not taking penalties, if you can avoid it.”

Notre Dame got banged up as the season progressed into the grind of late January and early February, losing three players to injury and sickness.

Junior defenseman Dan VeNard has missed over a month due to a lower body injury, and senior forward Josh Sciba will be out for at least this weekend with an upper body injury. Sophomore center Christian Hanson will continue to sit out for the series against the Mavericks with mononucleosis, but he began to skate in practice this week for the first time in several weeks.

“[The injuries disrupt] things because this time of the year, you like to get your lines the way you want them for the rest of the year,” Jackson said. “I keep switching them because we can’t find good combinations. When everybody was healthy, I just had a pretty good feeling of what our best combinations were.”

Nebraska-Omaha has had its own serious problems recently, suspending two of its players for the season this week.

The Omaha World-Herald reported Monday that the Mavericks suspended senior Bobby Henderson and sophomore Adam Bartholomay for the remainder of the season on violation of team rules after they were arrested on suspicion of public intoxication Sunday.

With 10 goals, Bartholomay was the third-leading goal scorer for Nebraska-Omaha and had played both offense and defense in 30 games for the Mavericks. Henderson had one assist in 12 games.

“It’s like I’ve always said, one person’s misfortune is another person’s opportunity,” Kemp told The Observer Thursday. “So hopefully somebody will pick up the slack.”

Tonight’s game will begin at 7:30 in the Joyce Center, while Saturday’s contest will get a 7:05 start.