Shoring up defense key for Notre Dame hockey

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – Twenty-five days after the fact, Notre Dame sophomore defenseman Tory Dello is still shaking his head in amazement over sophomore goaltender Cale Morris’ performance in a 2-2 overtime tie at Penn State on Feb. 3.

“He stood on his head,” said the 6-foot, 190-pound sophomore defenseman from Crystal Lake, Ill., as he remembered how Morris made the only five saves of the five-minute overtime session, one on a penalty shot by Penn State’s Andrew Sturtz with 1:36 remaining, to preserve Notre Dame’s one point (the Irish earned another when defenseman Jordan Gross beat PSU goalie Peyton Jones in the shootout that followed).

“When he’s making those saves he was making, he’s giving us energy to play our game,” Dello said as the No. 4/5 Irish (23-9-2), coming off the weekend bye afforded to the Big Ten’s regular-season champion, prepare for Saturday’s single-elimination game with the red-hot, 12th-ranked Nittany Lions (18-13-5), who have won five straight. Faceoff on the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena is 5:30 p.m.

“He’s really been the backbone of our team,” Dello understated. Indeed, the overtime performance was just part of a career-high 55 saves by Morris. His previous high mark of 48 had come the night before in Notre Dame’s 5-3 victory.

In Notre Dame’s first two games against the Nittany Lions on Nov. 10-11 in South Bend, part of a school-record 16 straight victories by the Irish, Morris had 40 saves in the 5-3 Friday victory and then 33 saves in the first of his four shutouts, a 1-0 victory, on Saturday.

In case you’ve lost count, that’s a 1.96 goals-against average and a .957 save percentage (176 saves out of 184 shots on goal) in four games against the Nittany Lions, who are averaging 4.8 goals in their last five victories.

“Those were four of the best games Cale Morris has played,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “We played well against Penn State, but they could have won any of those four games. For us to have success, we’re only going to be as good as our goaltender.”

And Morris is only as good as the band of merry men in front of him. Jackson likes his seven defenders and thinks they can be better.

“Some are more offensive, like Jordan Gross and Bobby Nardella, good breakout guys, transition guys, they are good at the offensive blueline,” Jackson said. “We got guys who are more two-way type of guys like Andrew Peeke or Matt Hellickson, who can jump into the play and be offensive but also defend. And then we’ve got guys who are more stay-at-home guys like Justin Wade, Dennis Gilbert and Tory Dello. They all contribute in a big way to our defense.”

And defense tends to win hockey games at this time of the year.

Ice chips

Notre Dame is 4-6-1 after a school-record 16-game winning streak and 1-4 since clinching the Big Ten regular-season title with 2-1 victory over Ohio State on Feb. 9. … Since Feb. 2-3 series with Irish and a weekend off, Penn State is 5-1 with five straight victories …Notre Dame has been outshot in 24 of its 34 games, including all four against the Nittany Lions, who outshot the Irish 184-117. … Andrew Sturtz, a junior, paces Penn State with 40 points on 14 goals and 26 assists. … Sophomore forward Brandon Biro and senior defenseman Trevor Hamilton are next with 29 points. … Sophomore Denis Smirnov, whose listed hometown is Moscow, Russia, leads the team with 15 goals, including a team-high six (along with freshman forward Evan Barratt) on the power play. … Goalie Peyton Jones, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, has a 2.97 goals-against average and .905 saves percentage. … Penn State is third nationally in goals per game at 3.75 but is averaging 4.8 in its last five games.

Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris (32) makes a stop during the Notre Dame-Michigan college hockey game Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, inside the Compton Family Ice Arena at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: Penn State (18-13-5) vs. Notre Dame (23-9-2).

WHEN: Saturday at 5:30 p.m.

WHERE: Lefty Smith Rink (5,022) at Compton Family Ice Arena, South Bend.

WHAT: Big Ten Tournament semifinal. Other semifinal Saturday is Michigan at Ohio State at 7:30 p.m. If Penn State wins, it travels to Michigan-Ohio State winner. If Notre Dame wins, it hosts Michigan-Ohio State winner.

EYES AND EARS: Tickets are available because of Notre Dame’s spring break.

TV: ESPNU. Radio: WZOC-FM (94.3).

RANKINGS: Notre Dame is No. 4 in USA Today-USA Hockey Magazine coaches poll and No. 5 in media poll. … Penn State is No. 12 in both.