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Niagara hockey getting up to face Irish

Dave Burkholder had been looking for the opportunity to bring his team to Notre Dame so it could experience the tradition and aura associated with the hallowed grounds of collegiate athletics.

That experience will come tonight and Saturday, when the Purple Eagles play the Irish in Compton Ice Arena, with Saturday’s game nationally televised on NBCSN.

Niagara and the Fighting Irish have met once before, at the start of the 2000-01 season, but that was in Omaha, Neb., where they played to a 3-3 tie in the consolation of the Maverick Stampede. It certainly wasn’t South Bend, Ind.

“We’ve tried for a long time to schedule Notre Dame,” Burkholder said. “It’s a big day for us. To have our school on national TV and playing Notre Dame, two Catholic schools going at it … I think these guys will take it with them for the rest of their lives, really.

“We’re really excited for this opportunity. We’re loading the bus and trying to win two games.”

Over the last decade the Fighting Irish have become a player on the national stage. They made their first NCAA Tournament in 2004. Since then, they’ve gone to the tournament six more times, including two Frozen Four appearances.

In 2008, the Irish lost in the championship game to a Boston College team led by former Buffalo Sabre Nathan Gerbe (now with the Carolina Hurricanes.).

Notre Dame has 10 players on its roster who are NHL draft picks, including a pair of Buffalo Sabres prospects from the 2013 draft – Connor Hurley and Cal Petersen.

Hurley, a forward from Eagan, Minn., was drafted in the second round. In three games he has one assist, and Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson sees a player with good hockey instincts who needs time to develop physically.

“He’s a very smart player,” Jackson said. “I think he’s got really good hockey instincts. He can make a play and plays well without the puck. He’s going to be a really good player as time goes on.

“He needs to put on strength. He’s a fairly lanky kid. He’s 6-2 and only about 175 pounds. He needs to fill out some and add physical strength to where he can win all those one-on-one battles and help score goals and not give up goals. Right now he has a bright future and can be an impact player.”

Petersen, a goalie from Waterloo, Iowa, was drafted in the fifth round. He is 1-1, picking up his first win last Saturday by making 27 saves against Lake Superior State.

“Right now he’s gaining experience,” Jackson said. “He’s another guy who needs to fill out a little bit. It’s not as important with goaltenders, but when you’re stronger it helps with explosiveness in the crease, being able to get across the crease and move laterally.”

Jackson already saw improvement in Petersen between his first and second starts.

“There were still a few situations where he gave up a few rebounds, but he was much better controlling the puck and he was trapping the puck into his body real well. He made a couple of great saves and did a good job on the initial shot in most instances.”

Hurley and Petersen are part of a young Notre Dame team that is trying to find its way before getting into its second season in Hockey East. The Irish dropped their first two games, losing to Rensselaer and Minnesota-Duluth at home in the Icebreaker Tournament, before rebounding with the sweep of Lake Superior State.

“We don’t want to get so far behind early in the season,” Jackson said. “We’re getting better week by week and have made some progress. We start conference play in a few weeks and have to make sure we’re ready for the challenge. That’s the focal point with our non-conference, to make us better.”

While Niagara (0-4) is struggling to find its groove after a series of injuries to key players, the Purple Eagles bring a different style to South Bend, which is exactly what Jackson wants his team to see.

“Niagara has had a good program and I think it’s also seeing a different conference,” Jackson said. “We don’t always play teams from Atlantic Hockey and we try to vary the teams we play non-conference-wise. … We’re trying to make sure we play different teams with different looks.”

email: amoritz@buffnews.com