Five Notre Dame hockey seniors hoping MSU series won't be last at home

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – For Notre Dame’s five hockey seniors, the Lefty Smith Rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena has been a security blanket for the past four seasons.

There are plenty of fond memories there for goalie Cale Morris, defenseman Tory Dello, and forwards Cal Burke, Mike O’Leary and Cam Morrison heading into their final regular-season home series against Michigan State Friday and Saturday. And their coach, Jeff Jackson, would like them to add more.

“We’ve played good road hockey and we need to bring that home,” said Jackson, whose Irish are just 4-5-1 in Big Ten Conference play at home but took five of six points at Penn State Jan. 31-Feb. 1 and then all six possible points this past weekend, with 2-1 and 3-0 victories at Michigan.

“We need to make sure we bring that same desperate hockey (feeling) to our building,” Jackson said before saluting his five seniors, who have made three NCAA postseason trips — including back-to-back Frozen Fours, won three Big Ten titles (one regular season, two postseason), and are 88-48-16 in three-plus seasons.

It seems like only yesterday that they arrived.

“You blink your eyes, and suddenly it’s our turn,” Dello said after he pondered wearing a green jersey Saturday night.

“It’s gone by crazy fast,” O’Leary said.

The five seniors have played important roles in a late-season surge that has lifted the Irish to No. 17 in the latest USCHO.com PairWise rankings, which mimic the criteria used to pick the 16 teams for the NCAA Tournament.

“Tory has played really well down the stretch and has been a leader back there,” Jackson said. “Mike has been a positive influence in the locker room and on the ice.

“The fact that Cal is a finalist for the Humanitarian Award says an awful lot about who he is. When the game is on the line, Cam finds a way to elevate his game. Cale has been a dominant goaltender in college hockey and has the ability to change a game on his own.”

Morrison and Dello each have five points in the last six games, with Morrison scoring four goals and Dello a pair of long-distance empty-netters in Saturday victories at Penn State and Michigan. Burke and O’Leary have three and two points, respectively in the same time frame.

Morris has been virtually impenetrable, as he has been for most of the last three seasons. That started with his All-America sophomore campaign, when he won the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender. During the last six games, Morris has a 1.79 goals-against average and .941 saves percentage in addition to racking up his 10th career shutout.

“They’ve all done a great job over the years and I’m hoping they have more home games to come,” Jackson said.

The last two seasons, the Irish turned postseason home ice into two Big Ten Tournament titles, both championship games ended by Morrison — an overtime winner in a 3-2 victory over Ohio State on March 17, 2018, and the eventual game-winner in a 3-2 victory over Penn State last March 24 before 5,988 fans, almost a thousand over capacity.

“I’ve never heard Compton like it was last year when we won,” Burke said.

But just as in life, there are no guarantees this season in the Big Ten. Going into the weekend, coach Danton Cole’s sixth-place Michigan State team (31 points) finds itself 10 points behind Penn State, which has concluded its regular season. Between the two schools in the standings are Minnesota and Ohio State (tied in second with 37 points), Notre Dame (fourth with 35) and Michigan (fifth with 33).

Only cellar-dwelling Wisconsin (20 points) knows it will be traveling when the best-of-three first round of the playoffs begin March 6.

With a sweep of the Spartans, the Irish would finish with 41 points to tie the Nittany Lions and could share the regular-season Big Ten title, but only if Minnesota (which hosts Michigan) or Ohio State (which hosts Wisconsin) don’t earn more than three points this weekend. If that indeed happens, Penn State would earn a first-round bye over Notre Dame because of more conference victories (12 to 11), making the Irish a first-round host.

However, with a sweep of the Irish, the Spartans would finish with 37 points but would need either Michigan or Wisconsin to complete a road sweep in order to play host to a first-round series in East Lansing.

And this, of course, is all contingent that there are no overtime ties and no shootout points.“Throughout the season, with all the bumps we’ve had, there’s been no quit,” Burke said. “Last weekend showed how good we can be. The belief is still there.”

Notre Dame’s Cam Morrison (26) and four other Irish seniors play in their final regular-season home games this weekend.

WHO: Michigan State (14-17-1, 10-11-1-0 Big Ten) vs. Notre Dame (14-12-6, 9-8-5-3 Big Ten).

WHEN AND WHERE: Friday 7 p.m. and Saturday 6 p.m. at Lefty Smith Rink (4,850) in Compton Family Ice Arena, South Bend.

TV: Friday NBC Sports Network; Saturday NBC Sports Philadelphia+.

STREAMING: NBCSports.com and NBC App.

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

RANKINGS: Michigan State unranked and No. 29 in USCHO.com PairWise Rankings. … Notre Dame receiving votes in USCHO.com media and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine coaches polls and No. 17 in PairWise Rankings.

LAST WEEKEND: Coach Danton Cole’s Spartans were swept at home by Ohio State, 1-0 and 4-2. … Coach Jeff Jackson’s Irish earned 2-1 and 3-0 victories at Michigan.

SHAVINGS: Michigan State leads series 69-43-3 after 1-1 tie Nov. 22 and 3-2 Spartan victory Nov. 23 in East Lansing. … Jackson, who earned two degrees at Michigan State, is 31-17-10 coaching against his alma mater. … Over last eight games, Spartans are 2-6 (and lost four straight games) while Irish are 4-2-2. … Senior center Patrick Khodorenko leads Spartans in goals (16) and points (33, followed by junior forward Mitchell Lewandowski (8-12-20) and sophomore defenseman (6-14-20). … Senior goalie John Lethemon is 14-13-1 with five shutouts to go with 2.15 goals-against average and .935 saves percentage. … Irish senior goalie Cale Morris recorded his 10th career shutout last weekend at Michigan, improving to 11-11-6 with a 2.49 average and .917 saves percentage. … … Linemates Cam Morrison (10-14-24) and Alex Steeves (9-15-24) lead the Irish in scoring, while Spencer Stastney (3-14-17) and Matt Hellickson (5-11-16) pace the defense.

QUOTING JACKSON: “We need to worry more about how we’re playing than worrying about the points right now. We have to continue to play at the level which we played last weekend as far as our intensity, our physicality (and) our smarts. They (Michigan State) are a team that executes extremely well. They’ve run into two teams (Michigan and Ohio State) that are playing at the top of the games defensively. But they’re still playing well.”