Defense Leads Notre Dame Back on Track
Late in the third period of a game last week, with the scored tied, 0-0, [[otre Dame]] bunched up in its own end to kill off a 5-on-3 in RPI’s Houston Field House. The team succeeded, keeping the game scoreless for an eventual overtime win.
“I knew they were going to be throwing everything at the net,” goaltender Cale Morris said. “It was a 0-0 game late in the third period, but I had confidence in our defensive corps and our penalty kill, that we’d been executing all week.”
The 1-0 victory marked Notre Dame’s seventh-straight win. The Fighting Irish have quietly rebounded from a 2-3-1 stretch in the middle of October and now lead the Big Ten with a 4-0-0 record and 12 points.
A big reason behind the string of wins is the defense, which has limited opponents to seven goals over the last six games. The team has allowed 2.38 goals per game, which ranks 11th nationally. The team has dressed seven defensemen on a regular basis, and that strong unit has helped Notre Dame overcome key losses and injuries, especially with an inexperienced goaltending tandem.
“It’s awesome to have such a old group of defensive people I front of me,” Morris said. “It really makes my job a lot easier since we’re all on the same page and we all have that experience.”
The group is comprised of offensive defensemen Jordan Gross and Bobby Nardella, defensive defenseman Andrew Peake along with fresman Matt Hellickson.
“We’ve got seven great D playing on a daily basis, and our goaltender’s really been playing well of late and playing very confident,” captain Jake Evans said. “A lot of the forwards are chipping in with the small things and blocking shots. That’s been helping us right now and hopefully that will take us a long way.”
Behind that effort lies Morris, who has slowly become Cal Petersen’s replacement in net. At season’s start Morris split time with freshman Dylan St. Cyr, but the sophomore has taken over since late October. He has played in each game of Notre Dame’s winning streak, has posted two shutouts and has a save percentage of .945.
“He got more composed,” head coach Jeff Jackson said. “The biggest thing for me is that he’s very calm in net, and I think he learned a little bit of that from Cal. The biggest part of his game right now is his ability to move in the crease, his skating ability, his edge control and his patience. He’s not dropping early and he’s doing a great job of controlling rebounds.”
Another unheralded reason for Notre Dame’s success and constancy comes from health. The Fighting Irish struggled with injuries since the season’s onset, which played a factor in the team’s inconsistency and loss to Sacred Heart. The team skated with several forwards out of the lineup, including Dylan Malmquist, Andrew Oglevie and Joe Wegwerth.
Malmquist was one of the players expected to make up for Anders Bjork’s departure, while Wegwerth was playing well before he suffered an injury. Malmquist returned on Oct. 26, just before the winning streak started and Wegwerth is still out.
“He’s just fighting a nagging type of an injury,” Jackson said. “I tried to play him last night. He wants to play, he’s trying to fight through it, but right now it’s really affecting his skating. He’s a big man and he moves okay as a big man but with this injury it’s made it a little rougher. Right now he’s the only guy that we’re waiting on getting back to the lineup.”
Injuries made it difficult for Notre Dame to play consistently and develop chemistry, but the team’s recovering health allows the Fighting Irish to show off their depth, which will be the key to conference success this season.
“We’re still trying to figure out who works well together and little things like certain systems that are going to give us our best chance,” Evans said. “We’re on the right rack and we’re just going to try and keep trending forward and try and play our best hockey when it comes February and March.”
While the forwards return and the offensive lines slot together, the defense and goaltending are enough to keep Notre Dame in the win column.
“We’re starting to get a feel of who’s on what line, who’s on the power play so on and so forth,” Jackson said. “Getting healthy is allowing us to develop some chemistry on our lines and defensive pairs. It’s hard to say. With goaltending like we’re getting and with our defensive core, we just need to score enough goals to win and I think this weekend is a good example of that.”