Freshmen frustrate as No. 1 Notre Dame hockey falls to Minnesota Duluth

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s hockey team showed some more growing pains Saturday afternoon and the Fighting Irish reign as the No. 1 team in college hockey will be a short one.

Defending NCAA champion Minnesota Duluth skated to a 3-1 victory and a weekend sweep before 4,416 watching at the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena.

Duluth goalie Hunter Shepard, who backstopped his team to a 2-1 victory over the Irish in last April’s Frozen Four championship game in Saint Paul, Minn., finished with 27 saves to outduel All-American Cale Morris for the second straight evening. Shepard had 21 saves in Duluth’s come-from-behind 3-2 victory Friday night. Morris, who had 36 saves Friday night, made 20 Saturday.

“This is going to be a work in progress,” said coach Jeff Jackson, who for the second straight night missed an opportunity to earn his 300th victory at Notre Dame. “There may have been a lot of false confidence coming out of last weekend. Being ranked No. 1 kind of raised my eyebrows. Duluth is a great team, potentially the best team in the country and they played that way this weekend.”

Freshmen brothers Noah and Jackson Cates, separated in the hospital nursery by 17 months, scored the second and third goals for the Bulldogs (6-1-1), winners of six straight who got started with an unassisted goal by Kobe Roth in the first period and likely will inherit the top spot when the polls are released Monday.

Senior defenseman Bobby Nardella brought the Irish within one, 2-1, with a third-period goal at 4:43. But the Irish (3-2-1) got no closer and now opens defense of their Big Ten regular-season and postseason titles next Friday and Saturday when Ohio State visits for a pair of 7:30 p.m. games.

“I thought we were better tonight — I thought we did a much better job with the puck,” Jackson continued. “Our power play could have made the game interesting for us.”

Duluth was whistled for eight penalties to Notre Dame’s four, but the Bulldogs’ penalty-killing units and Shepard frustrated the Irish on six power plays, stopping 12 shots. Duluth, meanwhile, went 1-for-3 with the man-advantage, with Jackson Cates’ conversion in the third period at 11:05.

The Bulldogs jumped to a 1-0 lead after the first period when Roth swooped in on a turnover by freshman defenseman Spencer Stastney and beat Morris before he had a chance to react at 11:33. Notre Dame had a 4-on-3 power play for 1:52 in the first period, but the best scoring chance belonged to penalty-killer Bill Exell, who picked up a rebound off the boards and skated in alone on Morris, who stopped the shot at 16:00.

Morris stopped Jackson Cates on a 2-on-0 break early in the second period, but the Irish couldn’t get control of the puck. Cates eventually got the puck to brother Noah, who beat Morris at 2:17 for a 2-0 lead. Notre Dame had three more power-play chances in the second period, including a 5-on-3 for 1:35 at 12:21. But Shepard made three saves and the post to his left made another on freshman Alex Steeves to keep the Irish scoreless.

The Irish started the third period on their power play but again came up empty. But they did gather some momentum and finally beat Shepard at 4:33 when Cal Burke and Jack Jenkins assisted on Nardella’s slapshot goal eluded Shepard, who was screened by Cam Morrison.

The Bulldogs got the two-goal lead back when the Irish were short-handed after Joe Wegwerth was called for hooking at 10:05. Notre Dame tried to clear the zone, but Duluth defenseman Dylan Samberg intercepted and fed Noah Cates, who quickly got it to his older brother Jackson for a quick wrist shot that went behind Morris and quickly out. A TV replay confirmed the goal at 11:05.

Notre Dame’s Graham Slaggert, left, competes with Minnesota Duluth’s Dylan Samberg during their hockey game Saturday inside the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.
Notre Dame’s Joe Wegwerth (21) collides with Minnesota Duluth’s Dylan Samberg during their hockey game Saturday at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.