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Hockey: Squad faces rival in new conference

By Jack Hefferon | Friday, October 11, 2013

Notre Dame will take the ice in a regular-season game for the first time as Hockey East members tonight after a 21-year run in the CCHA ended last season.

Things may not look any different this weekend though, as the Irish will face their old CCHA rivals, Western Michigan, in a home-and-home series.

For Irish coach Jeff Jackson, maintaining Notre Dame’s CCHA ties will ensure the continuation of great traditions – and great hockey.

“We developed a bit of a rivalry with Western [Michigan] over the past few years,” Jackson said. “We’re going to continue to work with teams that we’ve played with in the CCHA. They’ve been good partners with us, and they’re good programs.”

The Irish will welcome the challenge in their home opener after they skated past Canada’s University of Guelph, 5-2, in their lone exhibition last week. The Irish impressed in that game, and Jackson said he was excited by the progress his team has shown early on.

“Usually the things that show up the most this time of year are breakdowns defensively, and we didn’t have many,” he said. “Maybe that’ll change playing Western Michigan on the weekend, but I thought for the most part…our guys have a pretty good understanding of the system.”

Notre Dame will also struggle to figure out a lineup for its season opener, as freshmen and new contributors push for ice time. While some positions battles are still fluid, Jackson emphasized the importance of early non-conference games in determining postseason positioning, and said that his goal from here on out is to put his best team on the ice every night.

“The years we’ve had the most success here is when we’ve had four lines that could all contribute,” Jackson said. “Right now, I think we’re close, but we still have a couple pieces to fill in and figure out. It’s going to be a tough decision this weekend, as we’re probably going to be sitting a player that’s played here in the past a fair amount.”

The Irish will need that skill on the ice in taking on Western Michigan, who will serve as anything but an easy win in their opener. The Broncos return junior goaltender Frank Slubowski, who started all 38 games for them last season on the way to second team all-CCHA honors. With Slubowski in net and a physical, hard-skating defense in front of him, finding a way through the Broncos may be the hardest part of getting past them.

“Western Michigan is always a very disciplined team,” senior winger Brian Rust said. “They play hard, and they play physical. We’ve had to work on our game this week and on getting pucks in.”

The series will be complicated by the home-and-home aspect, which will send the Irish to Kalamazoo, Mich., for Saturday’s game.

Still, Rust said the travel shouldn’t pose a problem for the Irish as they kick off their season.

“Friday night is your basic home game, then you get right on the bus after the game and get in around one in the morning,” Rust said. “That takes away some of your sleep, but early in the season it’s a lot easier.”

The Irish and Broncos will square off at the Compton Family Ice Arena at 8:05 p.m. tonight night and then travel to Kalamazoo on Saturday for a 7:05 p.m. contest.

Contact Jack Hefferon at [email protected]