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Story lines of upcoming CCHA semifinals are a sports writer's dream
March 14, 2007
By LINDA BOUVET, LSSU Sports Information Director
There are so many story lines regarding Friday's Central Collegiate Hockey Association semifinal game between Lake Superior State and No. 1-ranked Notre Dame...It's a sports writer's dream.
There's the matchup between two of the nation's top goaltenders - UND's David Brown and LSSU's Jeff Jakaitis. There's UND coach Jeff Jackson's first trip to the CCHA semifinals since leading Lake Superior State to the finals in 1996. There's the turnaround of two storied college hockey programs. And, there's the classic David and Goliath story that the Lakers are so accustomed to.
Oh, yes, the other semifinal game will be pretty good too. It's No. 9 Michigan vs. No. 10 Michigan State for the sixth time this season. The Wolverines and Spartans are 2-2-1 against each other so far this season.
When the Lakers (21-17-3) and Fighting Irish (29-6-3) face off at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, it will be the first time since 2001 that CCHA All-Conference goaltenders will oppose one another at Joe Louis Arena. Brown, who leads the nation in goals-against average, was named to the All-CCHA First Team, while Jakaitis, who is second in the nation in save percentage at .935, was named to the All-CCHA Second Team.
"He's been great throughout the 3 ½ years since he became a starter," LSSU coach Jim Roque said of Jakaitis, who holds the Lakers' career record for save percentage and shutouts. "Obviously a lot of people in the CCHA know about him, but he's not known as well at the national level. Over the years, he's given us a chance to win a lot of games. He's been fabulous for a long time here at Lake Superior State."
"Jakaitis has flown under the radar somewhat, but my opinion is that they're both first-teamers," said Jackson, who is still closely-connected to the Sault after coaching at LSSU from 1987-90 as an assistant and 1990-96 as a head coach. "And from knowing people in the Soo, I know that he isn't just a great goalie, he's a great kid."
Jackson credited his goalie, Brown, for getting his confidence back after enduring an inconsistent junior season and "tough" sophomore year. Although much can be said for Brown's supporting cast, his improvement was dramatic - from a 4.30 goals-against average in 2004-05 to 2.47 in 2005-06 and 1.64 in 2006-07.
"He has come a long way in his mental approach to the game, and he's learned a lot of humility along the way," Jackson said.
LSSU's rise out of the CCHA basement took a bit longer and was a bit less dramatic than Notre Dame's one-year turnaround. After finishing 12th in the CCHA for three straight seasons, the Lakers improved to 11th in 2003-04, ninth in 2004-05 and sixth in 2005-06. Until this season, they had won only one CCHA playoff game in 11 years.
"We are obviously thrilled to get to Joe Louis, and we realize we have a huge task ahead of us with the caliber of teams that are there," Roque said. "Our guys are coming together at the right time of the year. We've got great goaltending and are getting some good bounces. The seniors have stepped it up at this point in the season with some big goals."
Notre Dame finished 12th in 2004-05 and tied for eighth last season before bolting to first place in 2006-07. It was quite a jump for a team that has not reached the CCHA semifinals since 1982.
"It's been a Cinderella type of season," Jackson said. "We knew we'd have a better team, but I'm not sure we expected to be where we are at the end of the season...I've never dealt with this much attention from media and alumni. I hope this season's biggest impact leads to getting a new building."
Jackson has been down this road before. He led the Lakers to NCAA titles in 1992 and '94, and was an assistant coach under Frank Anzalone when they won the national championship in 1988.
Roque, who was also an LSSU assistant in 1988, is dealing with a sudden burst of attention now that the Lakers have achieved their winningest season since 1995-96. Although he's been pleased with his team's play since the season began, the Lakers were a middle-of-the-pack team when it came to scoring goals and winning games during the regular-season. His ultimate goal was to have them peak at the right time. There is no arguing that the Lakers are playing their best playoff hockey of the decade.
Jakaitis is one of six seniors leading LSSU through the playoffs. Senior forward Jeff Rainville, who scored three of the Lakers' four goals at Miami last weekend, is the CCHA's top scorer in the playoffs with 3-5--8. He has become the symbol of what the Laker seniors set out to accomplish this season.
"Jeff came here with the expectation that he was going to score a lot of goals," Roque said. "He's played well throughout his career, but he's been criticized for not being the point producer he was expected to be. I'm really happy for him. He deserves this moment."
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