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Irish to take on Northern Michigan in Detroit

Dan Murphy | Friday, March 20, 2009

Irish coach Jeff Jackson compared winning the CCHA championship to his version of a Stanley Cup.

“It’s a big event for our conference,” he said. “I’m always surprised in basketball the conference championships don’t mean much. Our conference championship has a lot of meaning.”

No. 1 Notre Dame (29-5-3, 21-4-3-3 CCHA) will take on Northern Michigan in a semifinal matchup at 4:35 p.m. on Friday to try to move one step closer to that treasured CCHA tournament title.

Northern Michigan, which finished in sixth place in the regular season standings, upset Miami (Ohio) in dramatic fashion last weekend to make the semifinals for the second straight year. After dropping the first game in the best of three series, the Wildcats (16-16-5, 11-12-5-3) needed overtime to keep their postseason alive Saturday night and force a Game 3. On Sunday they completed the upset on the road with an impressive 3-1 victory.

“Let’s face facts, we’re playing maybe the hottest team in the country right now,” Jackson said. “To win two games down in Miami is quite an accomplishment.”

Northern Michigan is 14-4 in the second half of the season. Two of their four losses came in the Joyce Center last month. The Irish offense exploded to finish a four-game season sweep over the Wildcats by hanging 14 goals on them in two games – eight of them on the power play. Notre Dame poured in nine goals the first night and five more in the Saturday contest.

“That weekend was probably a little bit of a fluke for them or for us. It was Friday the 13th and that game was just wacky,” Jackson said.

In his nine games since then, Northern Michigan junior goalie Brian Stewart has only given up 19 goals. Stewart caught fire against Miami last weekend leading his team to victory with a 41-save performance in the third game.

“At this time of the year everyone we are going to face will have a good goaltender, but Stewart has been a big reason why they have done so well,” Jackson said.

Notre Dame was able to put up four quick goals on Stewart in its 9-5 win last month and will take a similar strategy this weekend.

“Stewart is a really big guy and when he’s hot, he’s hot. If we get to him early I think that can be our best bet to try and frustrate him,” junior wing Ryan Thang said. “Usually in these games whoever has the better goalie ends up winning the game.”

If that’s the case, the Irish can have plenty of confidence heading into the weekend. Senior netminder Jordan Pearce has held opponents to one goal in his past five games. Pearce pitched back-to-back shutouts last weekend in the team’s series with Nebraska-Omaha.

“I feel pretty confident out there and I’m seeing the puck pretty well,” Pearce said. “It’s very much a team effort, though.”

Pearce is one of the nominees for the CCHA Player of the Year award which will be given out this weekend. He said that he expected Friday’s contest to be much lower scoring than the last times the two teams met.

“We kind of took it to them here. We were 4-0 against them this year but I think the fifth is going to be a little harder to get,” he said.

Notre Dame will have a little extra motivation in Detroit this weekend after losing in the semifinals last season and then falling to Northern Michigan in the consolation match the following day.

“We kind of embarrassed ourselves up there last year,” Thang said. “I told a couple of guys at the end of practice not to forget about that.”

If Notre Dame does get past the Wildcats they will take on the winner of the Michigan-Alaska game at 7:35 p.m. Saturday.

No. 3 Michigan (28-10-0, 20-8-0-0) is the second seed in the tournament and has handed Notre Dame one of its two losses in the second half of the season. Alaska (17-14-6, 13-10-5-3) has also been playing well, led by first-team all-conference goaltender Chad Johnson. Johnson is also up for the CCHA Player of the Year award.

“I would like to play Michigan because it’s always a heated battle against them, but both teams are playing really well right now so it should be an interesting tournament,” Thang said.