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Hockey: Irish return home for OSU

Matt Gamber | Friday, February 22, 2008

The Irish return home this weekend for a two-game set with conference foe Ohio State – and after last weekend’s trek to Fairbanks, Alaska, the Joyce Center has never seemed so appealing.

“We’re pretty excited to get back home and get our crowd back on our side,” said junior right wing Erik Condra, who leads Notre Dame with 33 points this season. “We need to get [our fans] excited about coming here and get ourselves excited about coming back home and dominating here.”

With a win in either tonight’s 7:35 opener or tomorrow’s 7:05 p.m. finale, the Irish (21-10-3, 14-7-3 CCHA) can clinch fourth place in the CCHA, which comes with a bye and a guaranteed home series in the conference tournament that begins March 7.

To do that, though, Notre Dame must re-establish the home-ice advantage it squandered in its last appearance at the Joyce Center two weeks ago, when the Irish were outplayed by Ferris State in a 5-3 loss and 2-2 tie. Before that series, the Irish held an 8-1 home record and hadn’t lost in the Joyce Center since its second home game – a 3-1 loss to then-No. 5 Denver on Oct.19.

“This league is a lot better than people give it credit for,” coach Jeff Jackson said. “Just because Ohio State isn’t in the top eight of our standings doesn’t mean they’re not a good team. You really can’t take anybody lightly in this league – that’s just way it is, especially this time of season when everybody’s jockeying for playoff position. If you’re just a little bit off, you’re going to get beat.”

Despite the Buckeyes’ (10-21-3, 6-16-2 CCHA) poor record, they have shown their dangerous potential with CCHA wins over No. 1 Michigan and quality clubs like Bowling Green and Alaska.

“It’s a team with a lot of talent that’s obviously underachieved, so the scary thing is that if they start playing the way they can, they can be really good,” senior captain Mark Van Guilder said. “We’ve played these guys for three years, so we know what they’re about. It’s just not taking them lightly.”

Notre Dame is 15-2-1 when scoring first this season and will try to jump out to a quick start against a young, up-tempo Ohio State squad. Though the Irish struggled in their first game home from Alaska last season (a 5-2 loss to Ferris State Feb. 23, 2007), Jackson believes his team has made the right preparations to avoid a repeat performance.

“I thought giving them an extra day off after coming back might help, but we’ll find out because last year we came home from Alaska and we were flat,” said Jackson, who didn’t hold a mandatory practice until Wednesday. “I think they feel good with the extra time off and hopefully be able to come out sharp on Friday, because that’s my motivation in giving them the day off.”

The Irish are hoping they left their scoring woes in Fairbanks, where they managed just three goals in two games despite firing 71 shots at Nanooks goalie Wylie Rogers, who made 40 saves in Saturday night’s 1-1 tie.

“I can’t put it in the net for them, and I know that they want to put it in the net, but it’s a matter right now of us running into good goaltenders,” said Jackson, who was pleased with his team’s ability to get to the net throughout the Alaska series. “But, we’re also not clicking as well as we’d like to be right now. If we were, we’d be scoring six goals a game.”

Buckeyes goalie Joe Palmer, a sophomore Jackson calls “one of the best young goalies in the country”, presents another stiff backstop hoping to thwart the Notre Dame attack.

“The biggest thing against all goalies is just trying to move it across the crease on them,” junior left wing Garrett Regan said. “[It’s just] bringing it to the net as much as possible, as well as keeping screens and tips in front – if he can’t see the puck, he’s not going to be able to stop it.”

With just one regular season home contest remaining after this weekend, the sense of urgency has been elevated, especially by the Irish veterans who know what it will take to repeat as CCHA tournament champions.

“We just need to continue to focus on what we need to do, work hard, and stick to our system,” Condra said. “It’s time to ramp it up for playoff-style hockey.”