Notre Dame looks to defend Big Ten tournament title in finals against Penn State
Tobias Hoonhout | Friday, March 22, 2019
After three-straight victories in the Big Ten tournament, Notre Dame finds itself in a familiar position as the Irish aim to defend their conference championship against Penn State on home ice Saturday night. Notre Dame swept Michigan State in a best-of-three series to move on to the semifinals, where an overtime goal from freshman forward Michael Graham saw the Irish through to the championship.
“It’s not much different than what we experienced with Michigan State or Minnesota — I mean, the positive thing is there’s not a feeling-out process, because you pretty much know what you’re going to get,” Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson said Wednesday. “It’s different only because you’re playing for a championship and the stakes are higher, so you don’t know how each team responds from a nerve perspective. I think that’s the one thing that I thought our guys handled that pretty well last Saturday, and even against Michigan State, I thought they came out strong, and that’s really important — to start fast for us, not to be chasing the game.”
While Notre Dame had a number of departures from last year’s national runner-up team, Jackson has relied heavily on the experience and leadership of his remaining upperclassmen to help lead the Irish. On the roster, junior forward Cam Morrison leads the team with six goals and five assists in 15 career postseason games, including the overtime winner to seal the Big Ten title against Ohio State in last year’s tournament championship, while senior forwards Dylan Malmquist and Jack Jenkins both scored postseason game-winners last season. On the back end, senior defenseman and first-team All-Big Ten honoree Bobby Nardella has five points in 16 career playoff games.
“The returning guys are instrumental in that area as far as having gone through — that’s an experience factor that is an advantage for us,” Jackson said. “We just don’t have as many of them as we did a year ago, but the guys — the juniors and the seniors that are in the lineup, and even the sophomores — they’ve been through that, and hopefully they’re the guys on the bench or in the locker room that are keeping things under control to when our nerves don’t become a factor, especially during those times where there’s momentum swings within a game. Because there’s never been a perfect hockey game, there’s always adversity in every game, and that’s where you have to have guys that can calm the troops when the troops are getting a little rattled.”
In net, however, is perhaps the most impressive performer, as junior Cale Morris is 8-1-0 with a .952 save percentage and a 1.55 goals-against average, including an undefeated record in the Big Ten tournament. Morris has once again ramped up his play this postseason, and Jackson credited him for his steady performances.
“Cale is the backbone of our team, and when he’s calm, when he plays calm, that’s when our team is at its best. Because they know that if they do make a mistake, they’ve got that ace in the hole,” he said. “Cale’s been really good since we started the playoffs — he’s had a good season overall, but I think he’s really been on another level here in the playoffs.”
Notre Dame hosted Penn State in the team’s regular-season conference finale, which saw the Irish split the two-game series with a 5-4 win and a 3-2 loss. Jackson said the Nittany Lions remain a tough opponent for their aggressive style, a factor the Irish will have to take into account in order to defend their trophy.
“I think that over the season, from the first time we played them until recently here, I think they’re doing a better job defensively,” he said. “I think that they’re a high-risk team. They play a high risk game, they pull out of the zone early, they expect that their defensemen can handle plays under pressure, that they can blow out of the zone and try and create odd-man rushes. Their game is all about transition, and it’s also about puck pressure. You have to manage that puck pressure with good decisions on your own, all over the ice, and then the other part of it is when you do get the puck — as they’re defending better now, so you have to make good decisions with the puck to break down their defensive game.”
But before worrying about another trip to the Frozen Four, Jackson said he is focused on the task at hand.
“That’s been the emphasis, is to get to the Big Ten championship and win a championship,” he said. “Everything else will take care of itself. Because that’s the only thing that’s on target for us right now, the only thing that matters is just focusing on the next game.”