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Hockey: Playoff pressure

Sam Gans | Thursday, March 10, 2011

After a one-week hiatus, Notre Dame returns to home ice this weekend for a second round CCHA playoff matchup against Lake Superior State in the final round of hockey games that will ever be played at the Joyce Center.

The No. 8 Irish (21-10-5, 18-7-3-2 CCHA), who earned a first round bye after finishing second in the conference, will battle the Lakers in the best-of-three series for the right to move on to the CCHA semifinals at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena March 18. LSSU (12-15-9, 8-12-8-5), the CCHA’s No. 8 seed, advanced to the second round after sweeping Ohio State last weekend.

Notre Dame will look to rebound after falling in its last regular season contest, a home defeat at the hands of Western Michigan, 2-0, Feb. 26, which prevented the Irish from capturing the CCHA regular season championship. Though the Irish have moved on from the loss, they are still looking to use lessons from it for this series.

“At home against a team like Western Michigan — they had a lot on the line just like we did. That’s playoff hockey, and we’re going to have to be prepared for games where the visiting goaltender is playing extremely well,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “We’re going to have to avoid frustration and certainly play more disciplined.”

Though penalties taken is one thing the Irish hope to improve, one constant lately has been strong goaltending, with both sophomore Mike Johnson and freshman Steven Summerhays playing well in recent weeks. Johnson will continue to be the No. 1 netminder, with Summerhays another viable option.

“Mike’s the guy I’ve looked towards as being the more experienced guy in this situation,” Jackson said. “But Steven certainly played well enough in the last six weeks that, if necessary, he’ll be in there. It depends on if it’s a two or three game series.”

The Irish and Lakers have met up once before in a series this season, with Notre Dame picking up a pair of 4-2 victories Oct. 14 and 15. But with those games five months behind the team, much has changed on both squads. In particular, a new goaltender has revitalized the Lakers.

“Ever since they put the freshman [Kevin] Kapalka in goal, midseason or so, they’ve been a pretty good hockey team,” Jackson said. “They’ve had good success defensively. He’s definitely made a difference for their team.”

While the length between games will change things from the first two contests the teams played against each other, there is one more factor: It’s the playoffs.

“It’s do or die. It happens at every level, once you get to the playoffs, guys get to a new gear, and it’s just a lot more intense and a lot more physical,” Johnson said. “The speed’s faster. It’s more fun to play in the playoffs, just because of all those factors.”

Regardless of the series result, the games will mark the last time the Irish hockey team will play on Joyce Center ice since joining Division I in 1968. Notre Dame will move into the brand new Compton Family Center next season.

Though the memories will be bittersweet, the Irish are focused solely on winning the games at hand.

“I think it’s going to be a tough weekend,” Johnson said. “But hopefully we can have some success if we do the right things and stick to our game plan.”

Notre Dame takes on Lake Superior State at 7:35 p.m. Friday, 7:05 p.m. Saturday and, if necessary, 7:05 p.m. Sunday at the Joyce Center.