Steeves’ line explodes and Morris tough again in 4-1 Notre Dame hockey win

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

KALAMAZOO — Jeff Jackson’s smile Sunday at Western Michigan’s Lawson Ice Arena spoke volumes about his Notre Dame hockey team.

“As a team we played a smart game, a good road game,” Jackson said after his 15th-ranked Irish scored four times within a 7:27 span midway through the second period and senior goalie Cale Morris was solid again in a 4-1 victory over the Broncos Sunday before a boisterous sellout crowd of 3,762.

Jackson’s second line of sophomore center Michael Graham, senior left wing Cam Morris and sophomore right wing Alex Steeves scored three of the goals and had a hand in all of them.

Steeves notched a pair as the Irish had their best offensive outing since their 5-4 overtime victory at Wisconsin on Nov. 16. He finished with two goals and two assists, while Morrison, who had the only Irish goal in Friday’s 1-1 overtime tie with the Broncos in South Bend, had another goal and two assists and Graham, who missed six weeks with an injury, had a pair of assists. Defenseman Matt Hellickson scored Notre Dame’s opening goal.

“They’ve been coming,” Jackson said. “The biggest thing is Michael is getting his game back, Cam is playing like a man and Alex is starting to play like we think he’s capable.”

The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Steeves, who scored his fifth and sixth goals of the season, couldn’t thank his teammates enough.

“We just kept it simple by putting pucks on the net,” Steeves said. “Cam is a beast. We need guys like that playing in a barn like this against an old (veteran) team like that. He’s an animal.”

Steeves also credited Morris, who stopped 40 Western shots Sunday after turning aside a season-high 42 in Friday’s game. He now has 119 in the last three games, the first a 37-save performance in a 3-0 victory over Penn State that ended the first semester.

“When Cale stands on his head like that, it frees us up a little bit,” Steeves said. “It gives us chances to make plays knowing we’ve got confidence in him to stop the puck.”

Morris, who lost his bid for a 10th career shutout when Western’s Jason Polin scored at 15:52 of the third period on the power play, liked what he saw in front of and around him. In addition to stopping 40 of the 41 shots the Broncos took, his teammates blocked another 24 attempts.

“It’s nice to see some guys get awarded with some goals there,” Morris said in sending the kudos back. “We stuck to our structure, played simple hockey and were rewarded. The guys were sacrificing their bodies left and right. (Spencer) Stastney had a couple of big blocks and the defense was great again tonight. It was a good team win.”

The Irish had sophomore defenseman Stastney and sophomore center Jake Pivonka back in the lineup after they returned from the World Juniors held over the Christmas break in the Czech Republic. The Broncos, however, were without Mattias Samuelsson, the USA team captain.

Jackson liked what he saw of Pivonka between freshmen Jesse Lansdell and Trevor Janicke and he thinks the first line of senior center Mike O’Leary, senior right wing Cal Burke and junior left wing Colin Theisen had good opportunities, too.

“They’re getting chances and doing some positive things,” Jackson said, “and Cale held us in there in the first period.”

Morris, whose first period Friday night included stops on three Western breakaways and another on a penalty shot, was again called upon to stop another penalty shot with 1:59 remaining in the period. The Irish were on a power play when they lost the puck at mid-ice and Western’s Ethen Frank picked it up and had a semi-breakaway before Max Ellis tripped him from behind.

Frank, a right-handed shot, skated in and tried to shoot the puck under Morris, but the Irish goalie smothered it and ended the scoreless first period with 16 saves.

Then the Irish offense, which managed just 10 goals during an 0-6-1 stretch late in November and December, exploded in the second period.

It started with Morrison testing Western freshman goalie Brandon Bussi in close at 10:20 and just missing a rebound. But as play continued, the Irish senior left wing gathered the puck in the faceoff circle and slid it to Hellickson coming down the slot. The junior blueliner’s quick wrist shot found the netting at 10:41 with Morrison and Steeves getting assists.

Then eight seconds after Western’s Hugh McGing was sent off for charging, Steeves skated down the slot and got a pass from Morrison to beat Bussi at 13:15 on the power play.

Morrison and the Irish weren’t done when he beat Bussi in front at 16:59 with Steeves and Nate Clurman receiving assists. Then Graham set up Steeves’ second goal of the period at 18:28 for Notre Dame’s fourth goal on its last five shots.

At the period’s end, Western Michigan coach Andy Murray stood on his bench screaming at the officials and was still barking as the third period commenced with senior Ben Blacker replacing Bussi between the pipes for the Broncos.

It was the last non-conference game of the regular season for the Irish, who have seven Big Ten series left beginning with Michigan this Friday (7 p.m.) and Saturday (6 p.m.) at the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena.

Notre Dame 0 4 0—4

Western Michigan 0 0 1—1

First Period—Scoring: None. Penalties: Notre Dame 2-4; Western Michigan 1-2.

Second Period—Scoring: 1. Notre Dame, Matt Hellickson 3 (Cam Morrison, Alex Steeves) EV 10:41; 2. Notre Dame, Alex Steeves 5 (Cam Morrison, Michael Graham) PP 13:15; 3. Notre Dame, Cam Morrison 6 (Alex Steeves, Nate Clurman) EV 16:59; 4. Notre Dame, Alex Steeves 6 (Michael Graham) Penalties (total): Notre Dame 0-0 (2-4); Western Michigan 1-2 (2-4).

Third Period—Scoring: 5. Western Michigan, Jason Polin 2 (Wade Allison, Hugh McGing) PP 15:52. Penalties (total): Notre Dame 3-6 (5-10); Western Michigan 0-0 (2-4).

Power-play opportunities—Notre Dame 1 of 2; Western Michigan 1 of 4.

Faceoffs won—Notre Dame 19 (7-8-4); Western Michigan 32 (13-13-6).

Blocked shots—Notre Dame 24 (6-10-8); Western Michigan 10 (4-4-2).

Shots on goal—Notre Dame 27 (8-12-7); Western Michigan 41 (16-18-7).

Goalie saves—Notre Dame, Cale Morris 40 (16-18-6); Western Michigan, Brandon Bussi 16 (8-8-0), Ben Blacker 7 (0-0-7).

Records—Notre Dame 10-7-3, Western Michigan 7-8-3.

A—3,762 (3,667).

Notre Dame’s Alex Steeves (16) skates with the puck against Western Michigan last Friday in South Bend.