Many events have happened around the sporting world since Jan. 2, 2005. But until Oct. 30, a win for the Notre Dame hockey team wasn’t one of them. Last Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Princeton snapped a 22-game winless streak for the Fighting Irish (1-3-0) – a streak in which the team went 0-20-2 (0-17-2 CCHA).

Ice Hockey
Juniors T.J Hensick (above) and Matt Hunwick lead the Wolverines with three power-play goals each. (TOMMASO GOMEZ/DAILY)

Despite that, the No. 3 Michigan hockey team will not take Notre Dame lightly going into tonight’s game in South Bend.

“We don’t look at (the Fighting Irish) as a weak team,” junior Brandon Kaleniecki said. “We look at them as a team that can beat us any night. That’s the thing about the CCHA and every college hockey team – (a team) can beat you no matter what if you don’t come ready to play. We know we have to come out ready to play and that’s the bottom line.”

The Wolverines (1-1-1 CCHA, 5-1-1 overall) are very aware of what can happen when a highly touted team faces off against an underdog.

Ranked No. 1 in the nation, Michigan visited Alaska-Fairbanks last weekend and proceeded to drop the first game of the series, 4-2. The Nanooks’ win was their second of the season over a top-ranked team. The first time was on opening weekend against then-No. 1 Minnesota.

Also last weekend, No. 14 Ohio State dropped two games to projected CCHA cellar dweller Western Michigan in Kalamazoo. And although No. 8 Michigan State isn’t considered a weak team, it still had to face then-No. 2 Cornell on the road last weekend. But the Spartans were able to steal a victory and establish themselves as a national threat. These and other games across the nation have proved that top teams can fall to opponents of lesser quality, especially early in the season.

Although the Wolverines have already played two games on the CCHA schedule, tonight will mark the conference opener for Notre Dame and its new coach, Jeff Jackson. But Jackson is no stranger to the CCHA. In his six seasons as head coach of Lake Superior State from 1990 to 1996, Jackson won four CCHA playoff championships (1991, 1992, 1993 and 1995), two CCHA regular season championships (1991 and 1996) and two National Championships (1992 and 1994). There is no doubt the new coach is looking to revitalize a foundering program that, after qualifying for the NCAA Tournament two years ago, went just 5-27-6 last season.

“They’re a hard working team and we saw that last year when we played them in the playoffs,” Kaleniecki said. “Those were tough games. (Jackson) is experienced, he knows what’s going on and he’s going to have them ready to play against us. I think it’s going to be a big difference.”

The last time Michigan faced off against the Fighting Irish was during last season’s CCHA playoffs. In front of a home crowd, the Wolverines won a 1-0 battle in overtime just one night after embarrassing Notre Dame 10-1. That resiliency is proof that there is more to the Fighting Irish than what’s on paper.

According to Kaleniecki, to jump on Notre Dame early, Michigan must focus on getting the puck deep into the offensive zone and using the forecheck to keep it there and create turnovers. The Wolverines must also continue their recent success on special teams. Through seven games this season, Michigan opponents have scored just four power-play goals while the Wolverines have scored 17. Michigan is led by juniors T.J. Hensick and Matt Hunwick, who have notched three power-play goals apiece.

Michigan must also work on stronger offense in the third period. This season the team has scored 13 and 11 goals in the first and second periods, respectively, but only five goals in the final frame.

The Fighting Irish do not have a goal-scorer with more than two goals. Their leading point-scorer, freshman center Erik Condra, has five points, all off of assists. He will be expected to set up his teammates throughout the night. Notre Dame lost its goaltender from last season, Morgan Cey, and has split time between two goalies so for this year. Likely to start is the CCHA rookie of the week from last week, Jordan Pearce. This season he is 1-1-0 and was responsible for the shut out win against the Tigers on Saturday.

Tonight’s game begins at 7:35 p.m. and can be seen on CSTV on tape-delay at 9 p.m. Michigan will come back to Yost on Saturday night to finish the home-and-home series. That game will also start at 7:35 p.m.

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