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Hockey: CCHA curtain call

Casey Karnes | Friday, March 22, 2013

No. 12 Notre Dame will travel to Detroit this weekend with visions of a dramatic final act in the CCHA.

The Irish (23-12-3, 17-8-3 CCHA) have an opportunity to go to the final CCHA championship before moving to Hockey East in the fall, but they must first defeat Ohio State in the semifinal round at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

Notre Dame enters the game brimming with confidence fresh off last weekend’s sweep of Bowling Green. 

The Buckeyes (16-16-7), however, pose a tougher challenge than their record would indicate, especially in the single-elimination format. Both of their regular season matchups with the Irish were heavily contested – a 6-3 Ohio State victory, as well as a 2-2 tie that the Irish won in a shootout.

The Buckeyes are coming off a quarterfinal series win over Ferris State in three games. 

The key to Ohio State’s success is senior goaltender Brady Hjelle, a veteran who continually stymied Irish scoring chances in the regular season. Irish coach Jeff Jackson acknowledged penetrating the senior’s guard is a daunting task.

“[The first Ohio State game] was one of our best games in the second half, but we didn’t win it. Hjelle had a lot to do with that,” Jackson said. “No goalie can stop what he can’t see … and we’ve been working on that. The big thing is to get pucks on net.”

Despite Hjelle’s skill, his Irish counterpart in goal is looking forward to going head-to-head. Notre Dame junior goaltender Steven Summerhays said he admires his opponent’s talent and relishes the opportunity to demonstrate his own.

“[Hjelle] is one of the best players in the CCHA this year, and one of the best goalies in the nation,” Summerhays said. “I look forward to those challenges, to be able to match his level of play and outplay him. I think with the single-game elimination, that’s going to be a big component.”

Summerhays’ play last weekend provides hope he can match Hjelle’s excellence. He stopped 22 shots Friday night to earn a shutout after junior forward Bryan Rust’s goal gave the Irish a 1-0 overtime win over Bowling Green, and then tallied 29 saves Saturday night when the Irish were victorious 4-3. While he struggled at some points during the second half of the regular season, Summerhays’ recent performance has his teammates fully confident in his ability to lead them to victory.

“[Summerhays] is seeing the puck great right now. He’s anticipating plays, he’s controlling his rebounds and he’s keeping us in games,” junior center Anders Lee said. “He’s been one of the biggest reasons we have turned it around. When you have a solid goaltender behind you, you know you can play with that confidence, play a little more aggressive.”

Lee, a first team all-CCHA selection, and Rust, who was honorable mention all-CCHA, will also play huge roles as they attempt to break through against Hjelle. The key to the game may well be the teams’ performance on special teams, as the Buckeyes scored four power-play goals in their win over the Irish. In a single-elimination game, one mistake on penalty kill could be the difference, Lee said.

“The stakes are a little bit higher [in single elimination games],” Lee said. “You don’t have the ability to make mistakes in one game and then come back in the next one. 

“It’s vital, critical that we have a good penalty kill and power play. In the playoffs, that’s what it comes down to, a mistake made on the penalty or taking advantage of a power play. We have to be better on special teams if we want to be successful.”

If the Irish are able to defeat the Buckeyes, they will face the victor of No. 3 Miami (OH) against Michigan at Joe Louis Arena. Notre Dame’s players are aware of the historical significance a victory in the final CCHA championship would hold but are also motivated to win one more title for their coach in the league he has been involved with for so long.

“I think it’d be really special to put a mark on history by winning the final CCHA cup,” Summerhays said. “It was one of our team goals to get to the CCHA to play for a championship this year.

“Knowing [Coach Jackson] more over the years and knowing what this league has meant to him over the years, I think it’s a really special moment for him. For us to be there and to have an opportunity to win a championship for the last ever CCHA … if we get to Sunday, and especially if we win Sunday, that will be an emotional moment for him.”

The Irish hope to earn a berth in the CCHA championship, as well as solidify their NCAA hopes, with a victory over Ohio State on Friday at 1:05 p.m. in the CCHA semifinals at the Joe Louis Arena.