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Experienced Jackson leads Notre Dame to its first national title game

DENVER -- Jerry York knows hockey royalty when he sees it.

As a college coach with two national championships among his 802 wins, he's had enough kicks at the can to differentiate between the brand-name schools that make up the college hockey map and the rest of the schools that fill out the Division I roster.

So while York might be a little surprised that hockey's newest status school will be skating against his Boston College club wearing blue "Notre Dame" sweaters Saturday night (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), he's not a bit surprised at the real reason the Irish have found themselves playing in the final game of the 2007-08 season.

Simply put, it's coach Jeff Jackson.

"It doesn't surprise any of us," York said. "He's had terrific success in a collegiate setting at Lake [Superior] State. Now, he has a nationally known school that gives him even more of a chance to go after top-level players.

"They're forcing their way [into the mix], and I wouldn't have said that three [or] four years ago. They're certainly joining that list of a dozen or so schools who have proven over a long period of time that they can contend for national honors. And he's gotten there pretty quick."

Quicker than anyone thought, including Jackson, who reasoned it would take five years to truly put Notre Dame on the map.

Instead, Jackson is in just his third season behind the Irish bench.

He inherited a 5-27-6 team and improved the win total by eight games (13-19-4) in his first season. Last season, the Irish exploded into a 32-7-3 club that made just the second NCAA tournament appearance in school history before losing to eventual national champion Michigan State in the Midwest Regional final.

This year's team was 17-5 heading into January before struggling to a 7-10-4 mark heading into the NCAA tournament. As a result, the Irish were the last at-large team selected; yet, they find themselves one win away from their first national title in their first trip to the Frozen Four.

"I've always thought that Notre Dame could be a great hockey program," Jackson said. "College hockey is a sport where Notre Dame can have great success for a number of reasons. First, it is the rivalries, and Notre Dame has strong rivalries. Second, and I don't know if it's a good thing, but in recruiting today, most kids playing hockey come from strong financial backgrounds. Those kids are going to good schools and good schools translate into good grades, so we can get them into school."

The "gold standard" Notre Dame likes to sell is a far cry from where Jackson made his mark in college hockey in the upper peninsula of Michigan.

He spent six seasons in Sault Ste. Marie and won two national championships (1992, 1994) with the Lakers. From there, Jackson became the first coach of the U.S. National Team Development Program (1996-2000), coached three seasons with the Guelph Storm in the Ontario Hockey League and spent two years as an assistant with the New York Islanders.

In all, he spent nine seasons away from college hockey before finding a home in South Bend. Now, he's trying to make that (golden) dome his castle.

The next challenge for Jackson is to impart some of his national title game experiences to a group of players who haven't played on college hockey's biggest stage before.

"I try to talk and guide them about being focused," Jackson said. "There are so many distractions at an event like this. Some of them are self-induced, like family, friends and alumni. We appreciate them being here to support us, but it's really not what it's all about.

"It's the time of year when everyone jumps on the bandwagon, and you want to make sure that the bandwagon doesn't roll over you."

In order to do that, Notre Dame (27-15-4) also will have to find a way to slow down a high-powered BC (24-11-8) attack -- one that scored six goals against North Dakota on Thursday, led by Hobey Baker finalist Nathan Gerbe's hat trick.

"He's a tremendous player," Jackson said of the BC junior, who has 33 goals. "But it's not a matter of shutting down one player, it's about playing as a team against the other team's top players. You're not going to eliminate them from the game; you just want to minimize the damage."

There isn't a lot of on-ice history between the two Catholic schools, but Notre Dame owns a 3-0-1 mark against BC since 2002 -- including a 7-1 blitzing of the top-ranked Eagles on Oct. 20, 2006, in Chesnut Hill.

In that last meeting, Notre Dame jumped out to a 4-0 lead by the end of the second period before cruising to the six-goal win. Current senior captain Mark Van Guilder registered a hat trick, Ryan Thang scored twice and Kevin Deeth checked in with a three-point game (one goal, two assists).

"I think it's a completely different team from last year," Deeth said. "They play an up-tempo style just like Michigan. The way their system complements our system, I think it's going to be a good game. We play more of a defensive style, but at the same time, our scoring is starting to come around. I think we just have to make sure we shut down their big guns, limit their time and space, and we'll be fine.

"I haven't slept that well for the last two weeks just thinking about this spot. It's never easy to get to sleep after a big win because you've got the butterflies still going and the emotions still with you. But now our main focus is Boston College and we're happy but we've still got one more step to go."

Notre Dame might be dealing with the pressure of trying to win its first national title, but BC is dealing with some pressure, too. The Eagles have lost the past two national championship games (2006 vs. Wisconsin, 2007 vs. Michigan State), and no school has ever lost three consecutive title games.

That said, the Eagles insist the pressure to avoid that piece of history hasn't entered their mind. Instead, they're selling a single-minded focus to give BC its third national title (1949, 2001).

"Emotion-wise, this team never wavers," BC captain Mike Brennan said. "We're always on the same page. Everyone is focused on one goal -- whether we're down three goals or up three goals."

The Eagles come into Saturday's game with an eight-game winning streak, compared to Notre Dame's modest three-game run.

But it won't matter if BC can't close the deal against the rising Irish. And considering how tantalizingly close the Eagles came in each of the past two years (a post in the closing seconds from sending the Wisconsin game into OT and the game-winner for the Spartans came with just 19 second left to play), anything less than skating around the Pepsi Center ice with the championship plaque will leave an empty feeling.

"Coming into this year we were just a little hungrier to get that win," Gerbe said. "You never know if you're going to make it back here and I think this team is really hungry to get that win because it's well deserved."

Either way, one coach will leave the ice Saturday night with a third national championship to his credit, which is clearly the definition of hockey royalty.

David Albright is the senior deputy editor for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.