SOUTH BEND – As Notre Dame’s hockey team bids for its fifth straight NCAA tournament berth, goalie Cale Morris will do a lot of heavy lifting.
That has been the case the last two seasons for coach Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish, who open the second half Friday night (Jan. 3) at 7 against non-conference rival Western Michigan at the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena.
After a roller-coaster first half that included a 7-0-1 start and a 2-7-1 finish, including a rare six-game losing streak, Morris and his teammates, ranked No. 15 nationally, are hoping for a reboot. It won’t be easy against the 19th-ranked Broncos, one of the top teams in the highly competitive National Collegiate Hockey Conference which has produced four of the last five NCAA champions.
“It was frustrating at times, but I think we stayed together and kind of relied on each other to get out of the hard times,” said the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Morris, who made 37 saves in a 3-0 victory over high-scoring and Big Ten-leading Penn State in the last game before final exams and Christmas break.
Morris stopped 13 shots in the third period, including a half dozen during a five-minute stretch when the Nittany Lions pulled goalie Peyton Jones for a sixth attacker.
“My heart was pounding,” Morris said. “It was a good team effort. The guys were blocking shots left and right. But it was fun.”
It was the ninth career shutout for Morris and lowered his goals-against average to 2.85 while raising his saves percentage to .903 and his record to 6-6-2 during a first half that saw him endure an upper-body injury which kept him out of preseason drills and left him rusty early.
“Cale basically had to go through training camp during the regular season,” Jackson said. “I think his confidence took a hit during that stretch against Bowling Green and Boston College (the Irish were swept by both). During that stretch he lost track of the puck. He has great skating ability and great tracking ability. When he is playing with confidence, he’s patient. That’s the way he played against Penn State.”
After backing up All-American Cal Petersen his freshman year, Morris surprised the college hockey world as a sophomore. He won the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender with a 1.94 goals-against average, .944 saves percentage and 27-8-1 record while backstopping Big Ten-champion Notre Dame to the NCAA championship game in Saint Paul, Minn., where it lost to Minnesota Duluth 2-1.
Morris might have been even better last season when the Irish won nine of their last 13, including five in a row during the postseason starting with back-to-back shutouts of Michigan State on the way to winning MVP honors in the Big Ten Tournament that the Irish won for the second straight season by beating Penn State 3-2. Despite a season-ending 4-0 loss to NCAA runner-up Massachusetts in the NCAA Northeast Regional championship, Morris finished with a 2.19 average, .930 saves percentage and 19-13-3 record.
“He’s been our backbone the last couple of years,” said Jackson, a former backup goalie at Michigan State. “Cale gives us a chance to win every night.”
Many expected Morris, undrafted by any NHL team, would sign a free-agent contract but he came back to try to climb the mountain one more time.
“When I decided to come to Notre Dame, I valued my academics just as much as I do my athletics,” said Morris, a Big Ten academic honoree who majors in business technology with a concentration in visual design. “At the end of the day, graduating from Notre Dame is probably going to carry me further in life than anything in hockey. Plus getting to spend another year with my friends trying to compete for and win a national championship for Coach ‘J’ is important. It’s the last thing that needs to be done here, and we’re hoping to achieve that this year. I believe we have the group to do it.”
Let the second half begin.