Noie: The puck stops here - goalie Cale Morris surges onto national scene for No. 4 Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

When the puck looks as big and as inviting as a Chicago style deep dish pizza, when guys in the other sweaters skate as if they shared the pie between periods, the game seems slow and effortless and easy for Notre Dame sophomore goaltender Cale Morris.

Wait, check that.

Morris long lapped both effortless and easy. Did it sometime early this month. Or maybe late last. Did it quickly. Confidently. Quietly. Morris just jumped into one of those zones where everything he sees, he stops. Anything the other team tries to do, he denies them. He didn’t expect any of this. He just plays.

Heading into this weekend’s Big Ten series at No. 14 Wisconsin (10-7-2; 4-3-1-0), Morris leads the country with a .955 save percentage. His 1.47 goals-against average ranks second. No goalie in the game has as many wins (13) and he’s second with four shutouts.

All this from a kid who played less than a full period (19:43) as a freshman. This weekend, Notre Dame’s last in action before a month-long break, Morris will blow past 900 minutes of ice time.

After starting the first three games, Morris came off the bench in the third period on Oct. 26, in a 6-4 loss to Omaha. The next night out, he started in goal, won 5-4 and has since stayed. With it, the wins have piled up for No. 4 Notre Dame (14-3-1, 8-0-0-0 Big Ten). The Irish have won 11 straight, their longest win streak in 13 seasons under coach Jeff Jackson and third longest in program history.

Notre Dame has won at home. On the road. In conference. Out of conference. One of the streak’s constants, regardless of whether the power play is clicking or the penalty kill needs work, has been Morris and his .963 save percentage and 1.27 goals against average during the run. He’s sent away at least 38 shots five times.

How has the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder from Larkspur, Colo., made it look so effortless? Made it look so easy? A guy who’s had an answer for everything between the pipes doesn’t have one away from them.

“The puck’s kind of just finding you and you have a feel for where it’s going,” he said late Tuesday afternoon with a shrug and a smile. “You try to get to spots and try and position yourself best you can and slow the game down.”

It’s been easy for Morris to concentrate on his job — stop the puck — given the guys in front of him. He’s remained deep in the goalie zone thanks to a core of veteran defensemen that has combined for more than 600 career games. That includes senior Jordan Gross and his 137 consecutive starts. Gross and the guys are there to wipe away any mistakes, and wipe out anyone zipping by with thoughts of one-timers. Morris gets all the praise, but it’s his defensemen who do the dirty work.

“You go into a game knowing that you don’t have to make 10, 15 unbelievable saves,” Morris said. “I’m just going to make the saves I’m supposed to make. They’re going to make things easy on my part.”

Morris does the rest by making the game easy on himself. That wasn’t always the case. Back in his junior hockey days, Morris would get way too worked up about the game. He’d toss and turn all night wondering about the next day’s workload. He’d worry about having to make a stop on every single shot. His game would suffer and he’d let an easy one or two get through. His confidence then would slide.

Now, he’s as chill in the crease as they come. Peppered with a plethora of shots? No big deal. Face an odd-man rush? Stay true to your skills and push the puck away. Nothing ever seems to get him going.

“He’s very calm back there,” Jackson said. “He is making the game look easy. That’s a trait that I didn’t see in junior hockey.”

A fine focus

It’s easy for Morris because he pays little attention to the past. His work over the last month has made him the talk of college hockey — on Tuesday he picked up a fourth straight Big Ten first star of the week honor — but he wants none of it. Doesn’t want to hear it; doesn’t want to dwell on it.

Save for Sundays when he may take a few moments after a weekend series to let all of his accolades sink in, Morris remains matter-of-fact in his approach. When a new week starts, it’s back to work, back to trying to be better than he was the last time out.

That means the weight room and some individual work with volunteer assistant coach Zack Cisek on Mondays. Getting in a good practice on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays. In the hours Friday before the puck drops on the first game of a series, Morris remains true to his routine of playing a little pre-game soccer with “the boys.”

Once those shenanigans with the ball end, it’s time to get serious about the puck. Time to jump back into his zone. What’s the surest sign that Morris is just about there? When he pulls on his hoodie.

“I’ve definitely had some ups and downs during my short goalie career, so you’ve just got to kind of learn what works for you,” he said. “That calm and control and consistency is what works.”

What didn’t work last season was Morris, but part of that was by design. He spent his freshman year behind one of the game’s best in former Irish goalie Cal Petersen. Long before they were college teammates, the two became fast friends while working elite goalie camps in Vancouver, British Columbia. Morris knew coming in that his chances in net would be slim — and often none. While he waited, he watched Petersen work. It wasn’t easy. But if he was going to do it, Morris was going to make sure he did it right.

Had Petersen returned for his senior season — he signed in July with the Los Angeles Kings — Morris might still be a backup.

“He paid his dues,” Jackson said. “He worked last year. Most kids sulk when they’re not playing. He did not sulk. He worked.”

Returning to the locker room after games during this run, he’s often had a crush of text messages waiting. Most are from his mother, Kathy. Or Petersen, a rookie in the American Hockey League with the Ontario (Calif.) Reign. The goalies also talk a few times a week.

The same night last month when Morris made 44 saves in a 1-0 victory over Minnesota, Petersen stopped all 23 chances in a shutout of San Jose. Petersen tossed Morris a test that said Notre Dame has become a goalie factory.

“That was a good one,” Morris said.

As good as Morris has been and as good as the Irish have been, there’s still room to improve. Morris continues to work to be even better with his puck control. The Irish need to rely more on their offense and less on their defense and goaltending. All areas will be tested this weekend at Kohl Center. But it’s a test Morris believes he and his teammates are ready to embrace.

“We’ve definitely had some success and just want to continue,” he said. “We’re on a mission here.”

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Notre Dame sophomore goalie Cale Morris is putting up some pretty impressive numbers during this recent run of Irish success. (Photo provided, MIKE MILLER, Fighting Irish Media)