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Hockey: Irish prepare for home games against Spartans

Conor Kelly | Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Coming off a sweep of Lake Superior State, the Irish will remain at home and take on CCHA rival Michigan State on Friday and Saturday at the Compton Family Ice Arena. Notre Dame (11-4-0, 7-1-0-0 CCHA), which sits one point behind Miami in the conference standings, will try to avoid its first conference loss since Nov. 2 when it takes the ice against a young but talented Spartans team Friday night.

Michigan State (4-8-2, 3-6-1-0) has struggled in CCHA play through the first half of the year, but Irish coach Jeff Jackson acknowledged that no game is an easy one.

“Friday night will be probably as tough a game as we’ve had all season. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least,” Jackson said. “They’re a dangerous team, especially coming off losses in three of their last four games.”

The Spartans have struggled to find the back of the net this year, mustering only one goal in their past three games, but the team has talented young forwards in sophomore Matt Berry (seven goals, six assists) and freshman Matt DeBlouw (four goals, seven assists) and a freshman goaltender in Jake Hildebrand who has accumulated a phenomenal .942 save percentage through the first half of the season.

“I look at their roster, and they’re just a little young in some places, because they’ve really got some talent,” Jackson said. “We know how tough it can be to score goals. We’ve been there. It’s hard to score in our league. You’ve got to work for it, but you also get breaks once in a while. I think they’re a pretty good team.”

One asset the Spartans do have is a potent power play, a unit that is converting at a 22 percent clip. Though the special teams battle shapes up to be a contest between the league’s top power play and Notre Dame’s conference-leading penalty kill, Jackson said he hopes that it does not reach that point.

“The best way to do well on special teams is to stay out of the penalty box,” Jackson said. “I think our guys can sometimes get too emotional playing at home and trying to get the fans involved, but they’re figuring it out.

“The power play is starting to come around a little bit. The penalty killing has been pretty consistent. We have to work on what we do, and the biggest thing is that the power play gets rolling here.”

The series comes at a busy time of the year for the Irish, with the prospect of the end of the semester and finals next week. Jackson stressed the importance of remaining focused, especially during a time of the year when last year’s season-ending slide seemed to begin.

“We’ve got three games left, and we’ve got to be focused on Friday night,” Jackson said. “This is a really tough time of year for our guys as they’re in the midst of numerous papers, exams and projects. Hopefully they’ll have the chance to refocus on Friday.”

Of particular note for Jackson has been the play of the team’s second line, centered by junior T.J. Tynan, the team’s leading scorer last season and a reigning CCHA First Team selection. Tynan is flanked by freshman Mario Lucia, recently named to the preliminary roster of the 2013 U.S. Junior National Team, and junior Mike Voran. The unit emerged last weekend as a potent scoring threat, as Jackson has tried to find the best way to match wingers with his talented center.

“I think T.J. is developing some chemistry with Mario, which is a good thing,” Jackson said. “He’s getting pucks to the net and shooting the puck and getting to the interior of the defense, not the exterior.”

The Irish will need a strong effort from the unit in order to crack Hildebrand on Friday night. His conference goals against average of 1.70 is good for third in the CCHA, behind Notre Dame junior Steven Summerhays and Ohio State’s Brady Hjelle.

The Irish face off at 7:05 p.m. on Friday and Saturday against the Spartans at the Compton Family Ice Arena.

Contact Conor Kelly at [email protected]