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Hockey: Irish ready for last CCHA opener

Conor Kelly | Friday, October 26, 2012

After a four game out-of-conference stretch to start the year, the Irish will open their final season of CCHA play when they travel to Northern Michigan on Friday and Saturday for a two-game series against the Wildcats.

The CCHA is set to dissolve following the 2012-2013 season with the emergence of the Big Ten Hockey Conference, and the Irish (3-1-0, 0-0-0 CCHA) will join Hockey East beginning in the 2013-2014 season. For now, however, the Irish are focused on competing in a league that is still one of the nation’s best.

“I think it could be even better than last year,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said of the CCHA. “If you look at a team like Northern Michigan or Lake Superior that’s all of a sudden better than they were a year ago, it makes it all the more so.  Our league has a good non-conference record over the past few weeks. We’ll have a lot of teams that are close to .500 in conference. Every point could really matter.”

Notre Dame and Northern Michigan have played each other 52 times throughout the two teams’ history, and each side owns 22 wins to go along with eight ties, including two ties at Northern Michigan last season.

Led by junior goaltender Jared Coreau, who boasts a .913 save percentage, the Wildcats (3-1-0, 0-0-0) are stingy defensively and will challenge an Irish squad that from last year to this has struggled at times to find the back of the net.

“They are always a very well-coached team, and they play very well in their own building with the Olympic sheet,” Jackson said. “They are always fundamentally sound and don’t give up a lot.  They’ve got good forwards that transition quickly and really good goaltending. They’re a nice team.”

After taking over the starting job at the end of last season, Irish junior goaltender Steven Summerhays has played well through the season’s opening four games, sporting a sterling .943 save percentage. However, Jackson said that he still has not decided how the goaltending duties will be split up for the series, given the work that senior Mike Johnson has put in during practice and his own desire to keep his backup fresh.

“I want to get Johnson a game,” Jackson said. “Right now, it’s kind of a feel thing for me. It’s Steven’s first chance at this, but I also have to make sure to keep Mike fresh.

“I don’t want him to go such a long period of time before he gets his first start because you never know what’s going to happen. You have to make sure you have a second guy that has the ability, and Mike certainly has the ability to play.”

Regardless of who stands between the pipes on Friday night for the Irish, Notre Dame will be tested by Northern Michigan, and if the past is any indication, the game will be close. With the emphasis on picking up every point possible, Jackson took time at the end of practice Tuesday to work on shootouts, looking for finishers among his squad that could net the team an extra conference point in the event of a tie.

“I know that we have the guys that can get it done [in a shootout],” Jackson said. “Every point is important.”

The Irish hit the ice against the Wildcats on Friday and Saturday at 7:35 p.m. in Marquette, Mich.

Contact Conor Kelly at [email protected]