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Hockey: Ferris State defense poses stiff challenge to first place team

Sam Werner | Friday, February 18, 2011

The Irish will be back on the road this weekend, heading to Big Rapids, Mich., to take on Ferris State in a key late-season two-game series.

Notre Dame currently sits in first place in the CCHA but is just a point ahead of both Michigan and Miami (Ohio). The Irish have clinched a bye in the first round of the conference playoffs.

“We have to play well as we approach the playoffs,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “You work all season long to finish in the top four to get that bye and home ice, but you’ve got to play well. I don’t care if you’re playing at home in the second round, you’ve still got to play well.”

Playing well, especially offensively, could be difficult against a Bulldogs team that is notoriously tough defensively. Ferris State routinely plays its wingers down low in the defensive zone to stymie opposing offenses. The Bulldogs defense is tied for second-best in the CCHA, allowing just 2.12 goals per game.

“It’s going to be about being patient, it’s going to be about staying the course and not getting frustrated,” Jackson said. “We have to generate scoring chances in different ways, too. It can’t just be off the cycle, because it’s going to be hard to generate chances off the cycle.”

The tenacious Ferris State defense is backstopped by senior netminder Pat Nagle, who leads the CCHA with a 1.90 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage.

“You have to play a smart, patient game against them because they defend their goaltender, who’s maybe the best in the country,” Jackson said. “They defend him well, and they play a good defensive style that allows them to create opportunities offensively off transition.”

At the other end of the ice, the Irish goaltending situation remains somewhat muddled. In last weekend’s sweep of Bowling Green, sophomore Mike Johnson played Friday and freshman Steven Summerhays played Saturday. It was the second weekend in a row that both goalies saw action. Jackson said that he would consider going with a two-goalie system for the rest of the season, but said it was far from set in stone.

“I’m going to play this by ear right now, because it’s kind of a new experience for me too,” Jackson said. “I’ve never gone to a rotation this late in the season.”

Either way, he acknowledged the need for outstanding play in net during the stretch run.

“We’re going to need a great weekend of goaltending,” Jackson said. “The next three road games, we’re going to need great goaltending because we’re going up against great goalies and tough defensive teams, so we’re going to have to play well enough to win 3-2 and 2-1.”

Both Jackson and senior defenseman Joe Lavin said the team was treating this weekend like a playoff series. Jackson said he was bringing the whole team on the road trip to simulate the feel of playoff hockey.

“We’re getting to that point in the season where it’s like playoff hockey, and it’s about everybody being part of it. One of the strengths of this team this year has been the team,” Jackson said.

“The guys that may not play every night, or may not play at all, are still a big part of this team and they’ve maintained great attitudes and that’s important.”

Lavin echoed his coach, saying the team was mentally prepared for the stretch run.

“We’re treating it like a playoff series, and I think it’ll be important for us to do that before playoffs actually start because we need to make sure we’re getting a head start on things.”

Both Friday’s and Saturday’s games begin at 7:05 p.m.