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Irish face Ferris State with season on the line

Matt Gamber | Friday, March 14, 2008

The Irish open CCHA quarterfinal play tonight fighting not only for a chance to defend their conference title in Detroit next weekend, but also for their NCAA tournament lives.

No. 12 Notre Dame (22-12-4, 15-9-4 CCHA) hosts Ferris State (17-14-5, 12-12-4 CCHA) in a three-game series that features the teams that finished the regular season at fourth and fifth, respectively, in the conference standings. Tonight’s game begins at 7:35, and Saturday’s game two and Sunday’s game three, if necessary, are both set to start at 7:05 p.m.

The seeding and the records, however, may be misleading; the Bulldogs own a 2-1-1 record against the Irish this season and handed the home team a disappointing loss and tie when the two last met, February 8-9 at the Joyce Center.

“It’s not just that we’ve had problems with them, but a lot of teams have problems with them because they’re a good team,” senior captain Mark Van Guilder said. “We’re trying some things offensively to spread them out a little bit and get some room because they like to pack it in as everybody knows. We’ve worked on a lot of things within our system, not necessarily changing what we do too much, but just tweaking it a little bit so we can be a little bit more effective.”

The Irish offense has struggled to find consistent scorers in the second half of the season, failing to put home more than three goals in a game since 6-1 and 4-1 victories at Bowling Green on Jan. 25-26.

That fact, along with the Bulldogs’ propensity to keep several skaters deep in its own defensive zone, look to contribute to what might be a low-scoring weekend – a style that just might serve the Irish well, coach Jeff Jackson said.

“It’ll be a difficult series, and I’d be surprised if there’s big scorers, but anything’s possible,” said Jackson, who holds an incredible 28-4 career record in CCHA tournament games. “They’re one of the better defensive teams, and their goalie’s one of the top goalies – but you know what, so is ours.”

A change, at least from the way he played the last time these two teams met, is just what Irish goalie Jordan Pearce is looking for. The junior holds a conference-best 1.80 goals-against average in CCHA games, but he’ll need to avenge Feb. 8’s rare poor performance in which he gave up a season-worst five goals.

“There were a couple times [in that game when] Ferris snuck into some spots that guys fell asleep in, and they were able to generate some good shots,” Pearce said. “They love just throwing the puck at the net from any angle in any situation to crash the net and get rebounds.”

Notre Dame hasn’t played in nearly two weeks, knocking off CCHA bottom-feeder Western Michigan 3-1 in its last action on March 1, so the Irish will look to shake the cobwebs quickly and get off to a fast start against the Bulldogs, who swept those same Broncos in two games last weekend.

“It’s not if you get off to a slow start, battle back; you’ve got to come out right away flying because basically we either put it together this weekend or we’re done,” Van Guilder said. “… It’s about setting the tone on the ice; we’ve been preaching all along in the locker room, especially in the second half [of the season], but what guys really see is when guys do what we’ve been talking about.”

Jackson agreed that scoring first will be a major objective. But that, he said, is no different from any other game.

“Regardless of if you get the first goal, you get the lead, or whatever, you’re going to have to play three good periods of hockey,” Jackson said. “Either team is capable of coming from behind, but it’s good to get that lead, though. It always is.”

More crucial to the Irish attack will be the way it plays throughout the game, not just in the first few minutes.

“We have to be efficient on special teams, we have to make sure that we’re solid off of face-offs, and we have to make sure that we can get more pucks through to the net,” Jackson said. “Those are probably the biggest issues, and some of those things you can work on, but you’ve got to understand that that’s how Ferris plays.”

Though the immediate focus is solely on the Bulldogs, Notre Dame knows it must play itself back into NCAA Tournament consideration after its 6-8-4 performance since Christmas. Over the same stretch the Irish have fallen from No. 6 to No. 12 in the polls, leaving its place in the 16-team NCAA field very much in doubt.

In fact, USCHO.com’s March 11 edition of “Bracketology” left Notre Dame out of the Tournament – though the Irish are “on the cusp,” analyst Jason Moy wrote in the article.

That could change with a successful trip to Detroit, but Notre Dame must first take care of the Bulldogs as the seniors bid farewell to the Joyce Center – but hopefully not Irish hockey altogether.

“It’s going to be tough [leaving] just because of the progress we’ve made in this building, from where we came to what it is now,” Van Guilder said. “We have a lot of pride in what we’ve helped build here, and its going to be tough skating off for the last time. But as long as were doing it with a win, I think I’ll be just fine.”


uSophomore defenseman Kyle Lawson was the lone Irish player to receive all-CCHA recognition as he earned an Honorable Mention earlier this week. Lawson has three goals and 16 assists this season and is considered one of the conference’s top defenders.

uVan Guilder is now Notre Dame’s all-time “Iron Man”, as he has now played in a school-record 154 consecutive games. He has played in every game of his Irish hockey career and is closing in on Dan Carlson’s (1997-2001) all-time record of 158 games played.

uThe CCHA tournament’s other quarterfinal series feature No. 1 Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha, No. 4 Miami (Ohio) and Bowling Green, and No. 6 Michigan State and Northern Michigan. The four quarterfinal winners will travel to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit next weekend. Both the semifinals (Friday) and finals (Saturday) are single-game match-ups.