Can hot Morris, Notre Dame stop surging Minnesota?

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — After back-to-back shutouts to start the Big Ten hockey tournament, everything is well again in the hockey worlds of goaltender Cale Morris and No. 15 Notre Dame.

Morris, who captured most valuable player honors last season as the Irish won the regular-season and postseason titles in their inaugural season in the Big Ten, finished with a 1.94 goals-against average to earn college hockey’s Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender. He helped lead Notre Dame to the runner-up finish to Minnesota Duluth in the NCAA Frozen Four.

With what Notre Dame lost to graduation and the professional ranks, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound junior from Larkspur, Colo., was hard-pressed to match his 2017-18 performance. Yet, his 1-0 and 2-0 shutouts of Michigan State not only matched his shutout total of last season but come at just the right time for coach Jeff Jackson’s 20-13-3 team, which plays host to red-hot Minnesota (18-15-4) Saturday night at 7 p.m. in a Big Ten Tournament semifinal on the Lefty Smith Ice Rink at the Compton Family Ice Arena.

The Golden Gophers have won five straight and seven of their last eight under new coach Bob Motzko, including a first-round 3-2 (overtime), 4-1 sweep of visiting Michigan. The only loss was a 3-2 come-from-behind victory by Notre Dame Feb. 22 in 3M Arena at Mariucci that came after a pair of 4-3 victories at Ohio State. Minnesota won three of four from Notre Dame this season.

“In the playoffs, you win with goaltending and special teams,” Jackson said. Notre Dame got both — Morris had 55 saves, the Irish scored once in eight power plays and they got a shorthanded goal while killing off three MSU power plays, including a five-minute major.

Jackson likes what he sees in Morris, a semifinalist again for the Richter Award after his two shutouts earned him NCAA hockey’s First Star of the Week Award, lowering his goals-against average to 2.23 and improving his save percentage to .929. He has a personal-best shutout streak of 134:05.

“He’s been a rock,” Jackson said. “He’s got his game going. He’s playing at an optimal level right now. We’re going to need him to because Minnesota has good scoring forwards and they’ve got a good power play.”

If not for a 6-6 tie in the season opener at Mercyhurst and allowing five goals in the first 32:47 of a 9-1 loss at Penn State at the end of the first semester, Morris would have a 1.97 average and .937 save percentage.

“(The shutouts) were probably two of the best back-to-back games we’ve had this season,” Morris said. “We need to stick to our game plan and play a structured game. It’s playoff hockey and anything can happen. It’s about leaving everything on the ice and believing in each other.”

The Irish last weekend played without their leading scorer, senior defenseman Bobby Nardella, who should be ready to go. In his absence, Notre Dame got strong defensive efforts from everyone, including freshman blueliner Spencer Stastney, who set up Mike O’Leary’s power-play goal Friday night, and freshman penalty-killer Graham Slaggert, whose shorthanded goal in the third period Saturday gave Morris and the Irish some breathing room.

No question the Irish believe in Morris.

“He’s a confidence booster … a calming presence,” said sophomore Pierce Crawford, who got the first Irish goal Saturday.

“Having Cale in net gives us an advantage on most if not every team,” O’Leary said. “For us, that means it will take only one or two goals to win a game.”

That will be difficult against the Gophers, who have averaged 3.65 goals per game during their last eight games. They are led by their top line of junior center Rem Pitlick (21-24-45), senior right wing Tyler Sheehy (12-29-41) and senior Brent Gates Jr. (13-18-31). A pair of right wings, sophomore Brannon McManus and freshman Blake McLaughlin, have three and two goals against Notre Dame, respectively. Goalie Mat Robson has surrendered six goals to Notre Dame while turning aside 130 Irish shots this season.

Notre Dame’s Cale Morris (32) is one of the country’s hottest goaltenders.

COLLEGE HOCKEY

WHAT: Big Ten Hockey Tournament

WHO: Minnesota (18-15-4) vs. No. 15 Notre Dame (20-13-3) in Big Ten Hockey Tournament semifinals.

WHEN: Saturday at 7 p.m.

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

TV: Big Ten Network.

STREAMING: BTN2Go and Fox Sports App.

RADIO: WZOC-FM (94.3) and UND.com.

WINNER’S SPOILS: Plays for Big Ten Tournament championship and automatic bid into 16-team NCAA field against the winner of Sunday afternoon’s semifinal – Penn State at regular-season champion Ohio State. If Ohio State wins, it will host the Minnesota-Notre Dame winner. If Penn State wins, it travels to Minnesota-Notre Dame winner.

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PREVIOUS MEETINGS

Since they first played ice hockey during the 1924-25 season, Minnesota holds a 30-19 advantage (three games have ended in ties). This season, Golden Gophers are 3-1 against Irish.

Minnesota 5, Notre Dame 1 (Jan. 11): In the first of two in South Bend, Tommy Novak gave Gophers 1-0 lead at 12:04 of second period and his teammates scored four goals in third despite being outshot 43-22. Sammy Walker, Blake McLaughlin and Brannon McManus each had a goal and an assist and goalie Mat Robson made 42 saves. Nick Leivermann scored for Irish, who got 17 saves from Cale Morris.

Minnesota 2, Notre Dame 1 (Jan. 12): Dylan St Cyr made 24 saves for Irish, but McLaughlin had game-winner at 19:52 of third period following Irish turnover. Robson made 34 saves, allowing Jack Jenkins’ goal at 7:29 of first period.

Notre Dame 3, Minnesota 2 (Feb. 22): On Friday night in Minneapolis, Irish rallied from 2-0 deficit for first time this season. Colin Theisen started comeback with first of two goals at 2:47 of second period and Cam Burke tied it at 17:43. Theisen then got the game-winner at 8:01 of third. Morris had 24 saves while Robson finished with 28.

Minnesota 2, Notre Dame 1 (Feb. 23): Alex Steeves (4:50) tied it for Irish in second period against Robson, who made 26 saves. But Scott Reedy scored game-winner at 9:28 of second period against Morris, who made 15 saves.