Team of the Week: Alaska
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
For the second consecutive weekend, Alaska was on the road for a critical CCHA series with a college hockey powerhouse. And the Nanooks headed back to the north with four more points in tow. The sweep over Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., gives Alaska four straight wins, a five-game unbeaten streak and CHN's Team of the Week honor.
This recent run of success follows a dismal end to the first half. Between Nov. 17 and Dec. 8, the Nanooks went 0-5-2. UA coach Dallas Ferguson thinks his team learned a good amount about itself and the grind of college hockey during these struggles. The close of the first half came with a five-week layoff. Since returning to action on Jan. 11 in Ann Arbor, the Nanooks have found the balance of timely scoring and steady team defense.
"It was a good break for us," Ferguson said of the five-week layoff. "We got some guys healthy and recharged. We know the second half is going to go by quickly. We knew we had to be ready right from the get-go. It was two good weekends for our group. It's nice get those points, especially in two tough buildings at Michigan and Notre Dame. We have 10 more games in conference play. Right now, we have to get a ready for a good Northern Michigan team."
Last week at Notre Dame, Jarret Granberg netted the game-winning goal at 19 minutes, 57 seconds of the third period in the series first game. The following evening, Alaska carried a 2-1 first-period lead the length of the game, holding off the Fighting Irish and heading home with four points for the second straight weekend. The previous weekend, UA swept struggling Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The pair of four-point weekends marks one of the best starts to a second half in program history. Moreover, the Nanooks hadn't swept Notre Dame in South Bend during the regular season since 2002. The wins over Michigan marked the first time UA ever swept the season series with the Wolverines.
The Nanooks currently sit in fifth place in a tight CCHA. Their 28 points puts them five off Notre Dame's pace atop the league. After consecutive weeks on the road, Alaska welcomes Northern Michigan to Fairbanks this weekend for a critical conference series. With 12 games remaining, the Nanooks have 10 CCHA contests before they finish the season with a home-and-home with in-state rival Alaska-Anchorage. Six of the 10 CCHA games remaining for the Nanooks are in Fairbanks.
Despite the lack of travel for these games, the Carlson Center hasn't been too kind this season.
"There isn't an easy place to play in our league, but we do need to do a better job at home," Ferguson said. "I think we're 2-5-1 at home in the league, so we have to find a way to get some points while we're at home. We have six here and four on the road. We need to get some points at home. Our road games left are at Miami and Lake State, so it's not going to be easy to get some wins down there."
As an alumnus of UA, Ferguson relishes the chance to finish the regular season with the rivalry games against UAA. Their location makes home-and-home series almost nonexistent. However, annually ending the season with the battle for Alaska bragging rights gives the Nanooks a strong look at the playoff atmosphere they'll face when the CCHA tournament begins.
"The rivalry is a playoff environment, so we have the intensity there," Ferguson said. "The other teams in our league will be competing for those points that weekend. But the rivalry brings such a spirit. Our players get excited for it. It's a good preparation for the type of games we want to play in.
"It's the first thing you get acclimated to when you come to Fairbanks. Even for me when I wish a freshman in 1992, maybe it's a professor or a fan when you're out buying groceries or even an older player saying that you better be ready for the Anchorage series. Some people who might not follow the team the whole season, they still know when you're playing Anchorage. It's a state rivalry. It's the interior versus the Anchorage area."
From the performances he's seen from his team this month, Ferguson has no reason to believe his club isn't prepared for playoff hockey already. Led by a strong senior class anxious to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since its freshman season, the Nanooks have also received contributions from a corps of talented underclassmen. Sophomore defenseman Trevor Campbell has a goal and 14 assists on the year. Freshman forward Tyler Morley leads the team with eight goals to go along with six assists.
"Everyone wants to know about Trevor, and I think his greatest contribution is that he's a steady player," Ferguson said. "We use the word 'predictable' in that we know what we're going to get out of him every week. He's not someone that's going to catch your eye right away, but he's someone you grow to appreciate throughout the course of a weekend. He always makes a good first pass, gets shots through and helps up move the puck up the ice.
"We needed some guys to fill some minutes with (Scott Enders and Aaron Gens graduating)," Ferguson continued. "It's not just Trevor. Colton Parayko and Josh Atkinson are both freshman defensemen that are playing in our top four right now. As young defensemen, I think they learned a lot in the first half. From what I've seen in the second half, they're developing a consistency to their game."
Three years ago, the Nanooks earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Then-freshman Andy Taranto was the big story for UA, leading the team offensively. Now, as a senior, Taranto has helped the club make a late push within the CCHA and the Pairwise (Alaska is currently 18th). Continued strong play in these final seven weeks of the regular season will push the club even farther up the rankings in hopes of landing a place in the NCAA tournament.
"That class went through this process when they were freshmen," Ferguson said. "Now, that they're seniors, it's good have that experience in your locker room. Our seniors have done an excellent job providing leadership. They believe in the approach that we have and help our team be at its best mentally.
"These guys have been through a lot with our program, and I know they want to get back to that level of getting into the NCAA tournament and playing well within our league."