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Notre Dame welcomes Penn State for final home games, senior night

| Thursday, February 28, 2019

As the race for home-ice advantage comes down to the wire, No. 17 Notre Dame is set to host No. 18 Penn State in the Big Ten regular-season finale. While conference-rival Ohio State has clinched the regular-season title, a regulation win for the Irish (17-12-3, 10-10-2 Big Ten) over the Nittany Lions (18-12-2, 10-11-1 Big Ten) on Friday night would clinch second place and home ice for the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.

Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson said Wednesday that Penn State will pose a roller coaster of a challenge, as the Nittany Lions lead the league with a whopping 150 goals (4.69 per game), but sit bottom in scoring defense with 119 given up over 32 games.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Senior defenseman Bobby Nardella carries the puck down the left wing inside Compton Family Ice Arena in a game against Michigan Feb. 12.

“I give [Penn State head coach] Guy [Gadowsky] credit. He’s come up with an identity for the team, they recruit to that identity, they transition extremely well,” Jackson said. “From a coach’s perspective, I don’t like our guys to cheat out of the zone [offensively], and that’s all they do — and it works for them. As soon as there’s any chance of them getting the puck on their own end, or even in the neutral zone, they’re going to have three, four guys going. They have a lot of players who have good puck skills, and they have good instincts, so they have the ability to find open ice and get open. They’re probably one of the hardest teams in the country to play against.”

Jackson said the effectiveness of Penn State’s strategy depends entirely on how well the team is playing during the game.

“It’s just full-court press. When you’re on, you can’t get away, you can’t get out — there’s nothing to do, there’s no place to go,” he said. “But when you’re not on, you get beat up the court. It’s the same concept. If you’re on, they’re gonna get 40, 50 shots a night, and have odd-man rush situations offensively … but when they’re not on, that’s what I talked about, then the other team gets two-on-ones.”

When the two teams played in December, the Irish won 5-4 before giving up nine goals in the second game. Jackson stressed that the Irish must be wary of the Penn State offense, even on home ice.

“No lead is safe. We had a big lead against them [last time], and they just keep coming at you … they play a high-tempo game,” he said. “The thing for me is that I never felt like you could win when [it] really matters when you’re playing like that, but they have won the league once [2017 postseason tournament], and they made the NCAA tournament [last year] — and they could again this year. I’m sure the kids really love playing there, playing in that type of a system, but I don’t know how much it translates to the next level.”

The Irish are coming off another split series against Minnesota last weekend — the team only has one conference-weekend regulation sweep all season. For Notre Dame to cap off the regular season in style, Jackson said the team must overcome the one shortcoming it has struggled to maintain all season: offensive production.

“We played really well on Friday night — we got secondary scoring — and Saturday night we didn’t,” Jackson said of the performance last weekend. “I thought we played pretty well, maybe a 10-minute span in the second period we broke down a couple times defensively, but we just had the inability to score. And we didn’t get any power plays — we had one power play — but we didn’t give up any either, so it’s been the same thing that has kind of haunted us all season, just the inconsistency in scoring goals — because we had chances, especially in the third period.”

Despite the team’s loss Saturday, Jackson said he “didn’t feel that [the team was] playing poorly.”

“We had a bad spell in the second period for a bit, but I thought we were playing pretty well other than that,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of games like that, where I felt like we played OK, we’ve not played poorly and we’ve not played maybe great, but we’ve played well enough to win, and we just haven’t been able to score. I can probably rattle off 10 games like that. We just have to win hockey games. It was like that last month — we just need to win games, and we’ve got to come out strong on Friday night. After that, we’ll worry about Saturday.”

Saturday will also mark Senior Night for the Irish, as the program will honor four seniors — forwards Jack Jenkins, Dylan Malmquist and Joe Wegwerth, as well as defenseman Bobby Nardella — for their contributions to the program.

While Wegwerth is out for the season due to injury, Jackson said all four seniors have played major roles in giving the program one of its best runs under his tenure.

“First of all, I have a lot of respect for the guys that stick it out for four years,” he said. “Sometimes, guys leave early — this class was originally six or seven deep. But the guys that have hung in there for four years, if you think about what they’ve accomplished over the last three years, before this year — making the NCAA tournament every year, and the Frozen Four the last two years, and they all are impactful in their own way. Bobby is having an All-American year, in my opinion, he’s having a great year offensively. Dylan is having his best year offensively since he’s been here, he’s kind of taken over that void. And Jack, he’s a coach’s player — he’s a guy you love having on your bench. He kills penalties, he can play on the first line, he can play on the fourth line, he can play center, he can play wing and he doesn’t say ‘boo’ if you move him up or down or all around, he just comes out and works every day, and he’s a very valuable player to a coach, to have him in the last minute of play, maybe a key faceoff, he’s just one of those guys.

“ … They’ve paid their dues over four years, they’ve volunteered everything they have to this program over the last four years, they’re all quality kids and I’m proud to have had them. Hopefully they have a lot of hockey left to go, and hopefully this isn’t their last weekend in hockey.”

The puck is set to drop in game 1 on Friday night in Compton Family Ice Arena at 7 p.m.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

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