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ND set for national championship rematch in South Bend

| Thursday, October 25, 2018

After taking both games of the series on the road against Nebraska-Omaha, the No. 1 Irish return to South Bend for their home opener this weekend against a familiar foe.

Notre Dame (3-0-1) will take on No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth in a two-game series this Friday and Saturday at Compton Family Ice Arena. Recalling the 2018 national championship, when the Irish lost to the Bulldogs (4-1-1) 2-1 after an incredible run to the finals, the two squads come back this year looking a little different, but many of the key figures remain the same.

For the Irish, senior defenseman Bobby Nardella remains a key piece to the team. According to Irish head coach Jeff Jackson, Nardella has done a good job so far of taking on a bigger role for the team this season.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish senior defenseman Bobby Nardella works to position himself in front of the net during Notre Dame’s 2-1 loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the National Championship game on April 7 at the Xcel Energy Center.

“We had the conversation, you know, at the conclusion of last year, just about the importance for him to step up and take that role that Jordan Gross had,” Jackson said. “You know, he’s more of an offensive guy, but the thing is, if he’s going to be a top four defenseman, that means he’s playing against the other team’s top two lines and he has to defend. You know, I think he’s done a good job of defending and being part of the offense. A lot of his offense has come on the powerplay, but he’s also picked his spots — when he can rush or when he can jump into the play on transition — he’s done a nice job thus far.”

The Irish have clicked well as a unit so far in the season thanks to Nardella and other key figures. Although it is early to start making broad claims assessing the Irish, Jackson was pleased with how the squad played last week against Nebraska-Omaha.

“I was really excited by the way we played, especially on Friday night. We took way too many penalties Saturday night,” Jackson said. “But, you know, we started to show our identity a little bit, and it’s only the third week of the season so it’s a little too early to get excited, but you know there were some real positive things as far as our ability to come up the ice with speed, come out of our zone with speed, and we did a good job of possessing the puck. And that’s how we want to play the game.”

Jackson and his squad are excited for the rematch of the national championship to take place on Notre Dame’s home turf this weekend. That being said, it’s still quite early, and Jackson is cognizant of his team’s progression with a lot of hockey left to play.

“If [the game] was in February, it would probably be a much bigger thing,” Jackson said. “But, you know, it’s so early in the season. Right now I just want to focus, this whole first half, about working on getting better. I think we’ve made some strides, but we’re going to play three-straight teams here and even beyond that, we get into the Big 10 schedule. You’re going to have to play at a high, high level to win.

“Duluth, we’ve played them a number of times over the last several years because we like playing them. They play a real good game, and we’ve got a lot of respect for them and their staff and our guys will be energized just because they [Minnesota-Duluth] are the reigning national champions and we just so happen to be the reigning runner up. So there is always going to be some of that, but I’m not trying to make too much out of that because it is October still, and it is about us getting better. And playing high-caliber teams is only going to force us to become a better team ourselves.”

Within that progression so far, Jackson said the 6-6 tie against Mercyhurst earlier in the season was crucial for the Irish, because it sparked something for the Irish that has allowed them to get off to such a good start.

“After the Mercyhurst game, it was like a light switch went on,” Jackson said. “And I think part of it is probably that they knew we were playing Providence [the next game], which is another team that we played last year in the NCAA tournament and won in the last few seconds. And just like with Duluth, we’ve got a little bit of a rivalry with Providence from our time in Hockey East. So it’s always something that brings out the best in your team, when you’re playing a team, and after that we play Ohio State, and then we’ve got Michigan, so it’s like one after another after another. And I don’t want our guys to get too energized, to where we’re hyper. Because being hyper against a good team like that will cost you.”

Just as important as the prospect of a national championship rematch, this weekend’s series is the home opener for the Irish this season. Jackson said it’s exciting to be back at Compton Family Ice Arena, and he looks forward to seeing how his team responds.

“This is our first home game, and it’s on a Friday — we’ve got school in the morning,” Jackson said. “So that’s when you find out a little bit more about your young guys who have never experienced that before. They have to find a way to get from the school mindset to the hockey mindset by one o’clock in the afternoon. So, it will be interesting to see how we respond.

“It’s a home game which is nice. We’ve been on the road for a couple straight weeks, and it’s good that our first home game is a big one, as far as playing a top opponent. And hopefully the building will be full, we have a good student crowd, and you know even Saturday night with an earlier start time so people can come before the football game. Hopefully we have good crowds, and that certainly makes a big impact on the excitement level and the motivation.”

Overall, this weekend’s series offers the Irish a great opportunity to assess where they are early in the season, and Jackson emphasized the importance of scheduling tough non-conference opponents like Minnesota-Duluth.

“We like scheduling good teams non-conference,” Jackson said. “We do like to cover conferences, so we do like to play teams from different conferences. That’s why we play teams from the Atlantic Conference and Hockey East and the ECAC, not as much but, I think it’s good for us to play those teams. But when push comes to shove, I’d prefer, like we have Boston College on the schedule this year, we’ve got Duluth, and [Nebraska-Omaha] has been a pretty good program over the last several years. So you know it’s a tough non-conference schedule, and it is important to ply tough teams to evaluate where you are. And it’s easier to get your team’s attention if you fail against one of those top teams — it gives them more motivation to work harder in practice to do things the way they need to do them.”

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