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Upstart Falcons enter JACC

Kyle Cassily | Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson saw the Irish in the latter half of his first year begin to take the steps that eventually produced a league championship in his second season.

Yet no one recognized it, and Notre Dame was picked to finish smack in the middle of the CCHA before Jackson’s sophomore campaign. Instead of meandering to the middle of the league, the Irish rocketed to No. 1 in the country.

And now Jackson has witnessed another team start to turn the corner similar to how the Irish once did. That team – Bowling Green – will travel to the Joyce Center tonight at 7:30 to face No. 9 Notre Dame (9-4, 7-2 CCHA) for the second of four games between the two squads this season – Jackson’s third behind the Irish bench.

“I commented when we played [Bowling Green] last year that they were a much better hockey team than they were early in the year,” Jackson said. “I sensed that they were starting to turn the corner, and I think that carried over into this year.”

The Irish defeated Bowling Green (6-3, 5-2 CCHA) 4-2 on the road on Oct. 23, but after that game the Falcons won five out of six. They sit in fourth place in the league, only four points behind third-place Notre Dame, and were ranked No. 21 in this week’s national poll.

Last season, Bowling Green finished last in the CCHA, and it was picked in this year’s preseason poll to finish in the basement once again.

“They’ve always played hard,” Irish captain Mark Van Guilder said of the Falcons. “They’re a bunch of hard workers, but they have some pretty good talent over there this year. It’s going to be a different Bowling Green than we’ve seen in a while.”

The Falcons are averaging 3.3 goals per game behind the offense of senior forward Derek Whitmore (11 goals, three assists), while Notre Dame is averaging 3.1 goals per game. The Irish offense, however, took a big step forward last weekend when it bombarded Western Michigan with 71 shots in two games.

Notre Dame had been concerned in the several weeks prior to the Western Michigan series that it was not generating enough scoring chances at even strength. But that concern seems to have disappeared, along with the team’s struggles to gain superior puck control to its opponent.

“We’re starting to value the puck a lot more instead of just throwing it away,” Jackson said. “It’s good to see because we’ve spent a lot of time on it.”

The Irish won’t be able to sit down to their Thanksgiving turkeys after the Bowling Green game. They will travel Wednesday night to Troy, N.Y., to play in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Holiday Tournament.

Notre Dame committed to the tournament in order to honor a prior commitment to play two games against RPI – a deal that was agreed upon before Jackson became coach. Jackson accepted RPI’s invitation to its holiday tournament, and then he invited the Red Hawks to Notre Dame’s Lightning College Hockey Classic in late December to fulfill the two-game promise.

Jackson said he prefers to play non-conference opponents in tournaments like the RPI Holiday Tournament because the team can play for a trophy.

“It’s nice to play for something,” he said. “It’s kind of like a practice to play at Joe Louis Arena or the NCAA Tournament. It’s just two different opponents in a short period of time, so we have to be able to make quick adjustments.”

The Irish will face an all-too-familiar foe in the first game of the RPI tournament – Alabama-Huntsville. The Chargers and the Irish fought each other in a double-overtime marathon in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament that the Irish eventually won 3-2.

Alabama-Huntsville entered the NCAA matchup with a 13-19-3 season record and had only made the Tournament by winning the College Hockey America playoffs. Notre Dame then had to play the next night against Michigan State, losing 2-1 to the eventual national champions.

“We were definitely gassed after playing Alabama,” Van Guilder said. “They gave us everything we could handle. I’ve tried to forget about that whole weekend, but we’re definitely not going to look past them at all this year.”

Depending upon the outcome of the first game, Notre Dame will play either RPI or American International in the weekend tournament’s final game. Between the tournament, the mid-week game against Bowling Green and last weekend’s series with Western Michigan, the Irish will have played five games in nine days.

“I don’t think the conditioning is a problem,” Van Guilder said of handling the heavy workload. “I think its more focus with having classes and everything. Focus is more of a problem, not so much conditioning.”