Michael Graham, Notre Dame work overtime as Irish advance to Big Ten Tourney final

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — For most of the second half of the season, there were few college freshman hockey players hotter than Michael Graham.

Saturday night, the 6-foot-1, 191-pound right wing ended a six-game scoreless span when he netted his 12th goal of the season — his 11th since mid-January — 53 seconds into overtime on a power play to give No. 16 Notre Dame a 2-1 victory over Minnesota before 4,882 at the Compton Family Ice Arena.

“I kind of got lucky,” Graham said after his two-point evening — he assisted on Cam Morrison’s opening goal — made the Irish a winner on Saint Patrick’s Eve.

The victory, the 499th in the 20-year coaching career of Jeff Jackson, puts his Irish (21-13-3) into next weekend’s Big Ten Tournament championship game against No. 17 Penn State (22-14-2). The Nittany Lions upended No. 6 and regular-season champ Ohio State, 5-1, Sunday in Columbus, Ohio.

The game will take place at the Compton Family Ice Arena on Saturday at 8 p.m. (EDT), with the winner earning the league's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. The Big Ten Network will televise the game. Tickets are available.

“Minnesota is a good hockey team,” Jackson said of ND's semifinals opponent. “I thought our guys did a good job. I challenged them to be patient, because I knew we’d have to be patient against this team. It will be no different from here on out.”

Cale Morris made 25 saves against Bob Motzko’s Golden Gophers (18-16-4), who saw their five-game winning streak ended and their NCAA postseason hopes dashed by the Irish. Notre Dame began Sunday at No. 15 in the Pairwise Rankings that mimic those used by the selection committee to pick the 16 teams for this season’s tournament. Selection day is March 24.

“We’re definitely trending in the right direction at this time of the year,” Morris said a week after shutting down Michigan State 1-0 and 2-0 in the first round of the playoffs.

Morris, who won All-America honors and the Mike Richter Goaltender of the Year award last season in helping the Irish to their second Frozen Four and a runner-up finish to Minnesota Duluth, lowered his goals-against average this season to 2.19 while improving his save percentage to .930 and record to 17-12-3.

Minnesota goaltender Mat Robson, like Morris up for Big Ten Goaltender of the Year honors and a winner of three of four games against Notre Dame during the regular season, finished Saturday night's game with 35 saves.

But Robson couldn’t stop Graham’s game-winner, which came after Mike O’Leary and Dylan Malmquist poked the puck behind the Minnesota goal. There, Irish defenseman Andrew Peeke outbattled Gopher penalty-killer Tommy Novak successfully and slid the puck to Graham.

Graham, who grew up 20 minutes from the Minnesota campus — in suburban Eden Prairie, lifted the puck over Robson’s blocker to set off the celebration marking Notre Dame’s third straight victory and sixth in the last eight games. Peeke and O’Leary received the assists

Jackson had left wings Malmquist and Morrison change lines before the game. Malmquist returned to a line with center Cal Burke and Colin Theisen, and Morrison reunited with O’Leary and Graham. That switch, and the return of defenseman Bobby Nardella, had the Irish flying to a 17-5 lead in shots after the first 20 minutes despite a 1-1 deadlock.

“I thought both lines were a little flat,” Jackson said. “They’ve played together before, so it wasn’t a big shift. We needed Cam Morrison to step up.

"He hasn’t been the same player since he was hurt back in January. I challenged him this morning, because he’s a really important player to us.”

Morrison scored the game’s opening goal at 2:00 into the first period, when O’Leary’s cross-ice pass deflected off his hand behind Robson to culminate a 2-on-1 break that was started by an outlet pass by Graham.

“It gave both lines a little more juice, especially the O’Leary line,” Jackson said.

The Gophers tied it, however, at 5:44 when Sampo Ranta deflected Ben Brinkman’s shot from the point behind Morris to tie the game at 1-1. Freshman Sammy Walker also assisted on the goal.

It would remain 1-1 through the end of the first period and through scoreless second and third periods.

For the second straight weekend, the Irish freshman line of center Jake Pivonka, left wing Graham Slaggert and right wing Alex Steeves held the other team’s top scoring line — center Rem Pitlick and wings Tyler Sheehy and Brent Gates, who had a combined 46 goals and 117 points coming in — without a point.

“We grew last week a little bit and a little more tonight,” Jackson said.

NOTRE DAME 2, MINNESOTA 1 (OT)

Lefty Smith Rink at Compton Family Ice Arena, South Bend

Minnesota 1 0 0 0—1

Notre Dame 1 0 0 1—2

First Period—Scoring: 1. Notre Dame, Cam Morrison 9 (Mike O’Leary, Michael Graham) 2:00 (even); 2. Minnesota, Sampo Ranta 6 (Ben Brinkman, Sammy Walker) 5:44 (even). Penalties: Minnesota 1-2, Notre Dame 0-0.

Second Period—Scoring: None. Penalties (total): Minnesota 0-0 (1-2), Notre Dame 1-2 (1-2).

Third Period—Scoring: None. Penalties (total): Minnesota 1-2 (2-4), Notre Dame 0-0 (1-2).

Overtime—Scoring: 3. Notre Dame, Michael Graham 12 (Andrew Peeke, Mike O’Leary) 0:53 (ppg). Penalties (total): Minnesota 1-2 (3-6), Notre Dame 0-0 (0-0).

Power-play opportunities—Minnesota 0 of 1, Notre Dame 1 of 3.

Shots on goal—Minnesota 5-12-9-0—26, Notre Dame 17-8-11-1—37.

Goalie saves—Minnesota, Mat Robson 16-8-11-0—35; Notre Dame, Cale Morris 4-12-9-0—25.

A: 4,882. Time: 2:38. Records: Minnesota 18-16-4; Notre Dame 21-13-3.

Notre Dame players mob teammate Michael Graham after he scored the game-winning goal in overtime as ND edged Minnesota, 2-1, Saturday night in a Big Ten Tournament semifinal.