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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame wins second-straight Big Ten championship over Penn State en route to NCAA tournament berth

The Irish were guarding a 3-2 lead Saturday night at Compton Family Ice Arena when Penn State killed a penalty and made one final push to score. The Nittany Lions (22-15-2, 11-12-1 Big Ten) had a stretch where they recorded seven shots in two minutes, but strong team defense and goaltending from junior Cale Morris kept the Lions out of the net. When the final horn sounded, the Irish (22-13-3, 11-11-2) were Big Ten tournament champions, head coach Jeff Jackson had his 500th collegiate win and a ticket to the NCAA tournament had been punched.

The sold-out crowd set a new Compton attendance record at 5,988 fans, and Morris said it all added up to create an incredible atmosphere.

“It was electric. The band brings it every night, can’t say enough about them. The student section was awesome,” Morris said. “The community support around Notre Dame speaks for itself. Sellout crowd — it was incredible. They definitely helped us keep momentum in the game.”

Ashton Bieri | The Observer
Irish junior forward Cam Morrison skates down the ice during Notre Dame’s 1-0 victory over Michigan State at Compton Family Ice Arena on March 8.

The win did not come easy. Penn State is a fast, high-scoring team known for getting pucks to the net and testing opposing defenses. The Irish were able to have some success in the first period, but Penn State always had an answer.

The Irish scored first off of a backhand play from freshman defenseman Spencer Stastney over the glove of Penn State junior goaltender Peyton Jones. Sophomore forward Sam Sternschein would tie the game for Penn State on a scramble just moments later. Later in the period, junior forward Cal Burke put the Irish back in front on a rebound in front of the goal, but Penn State senior forward Alec Marsh would equalize the score again just moments later.

Jackson said he was impressed with Penn State’s fight throughout the game.

“My hat is off to Penn State. They had a great year, and they keep on getting better,” he said. “They are a hard team to play against. We were very fortunate to come out ahead tonight. For me to think Penn State should not be in the NCAA tournament is crazy.”

The Irish were outshot by the Nittany Lions 18-12. With Penn State getting the majority of the quality chances early, Morris had to step up, and he was up to the challenge all night. Jackson said he was impressed with the play of his goaltender.

“He’s a great goaltender. He’s a big part of why we are where we are over the past two years. He’s a difference maker,” Jackson said. “If you have a difference maker in net it makes a big deal in winning hockey games. He’s shown that he can be composed at the finishes of games that are really important, and he did it again tonight.”

The Irish were outshot once again in the second period 18-10, but they were the ones who got the shot on goal that mattered. After surviving most of the period with strong goaltending and tough defense, junior forward Cam Morrison was able to find space in the Penn State defense. He crossed over the blue line and used the defenseman as a screen to put a wrist shot past Jones. It is the second-straight year Morrison has scored the game-winning goal in the Big Ten championship game. Morrison said he was able to use the defenseman as a screen to create the chance.

“[Freshman forward] Michael Graham got it quickly up to [junior forward] Mike O’Leary,” he said. “O’Leary dropped it to me, and I saw that I had a couple feet between me and the defenseman. I just walked in and got a shot off and went low glove. [The defender] was in between me and the goalie. I was just trying to get it around the defenseman and on net — luckily it went in.”

The lead gave the Irish the ability to focus on playing defensive. Penn State led the NCAA this year with 1,599 shots, miles ahead of second place Minnesota-Duluth’s 1,317. The Nittany Lions needed to get the puck to the net in the third period to tie the game. When a Penn State defenseman dumped the puck on goal with 7:48 left in the game, it was just their third shot of the third period. When asked about the Irish playing conservatively in the third, Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky said he was impressed with the Irish’s ability to play situational defense late.

“We knew it was coming. It’s difficult to get anything more than we got. It’s hard to get grade A chances,” Gadowsky said. “That being said, I still thought we did get opportunities. They did an excellent job. That’s another aspect where we have to learn.”

After this period of uncharacteristic slow play, Penn State made a strong late push. After killing a too-many-men penalty, Penn State threw everything they could at the Irish defense. Whether it was a diving clear off the goal line by O’Leary or a shot block and clear by senior forward Dylan Malmquist, the Irish always had an answer for the Penn State attack. After surviving almost two minutes of a six-on-five attack, the Irish were Big Ten champions.

The Irish will now get a shot at returning to the Frozen Four for a third-straight year after winning the Big Ten's automatic berth. The Irish found out Sunday that they had secured a No. 3 seeding in the NCAA Tournament, where they will face No. 2 Clarkson on Friday in the first round in Manchester, New Hampshire.

On a night where he added a 500th career coaching win, a Big Ten tournament championship and another NCAA tournament berth to his resume, Jackson said he remained focused on his players and the team’s future.

“I heard something about [500 wins] earlier in the week, and I did not even think about it until somebody said something afterwards,” he said. “I have talked about that before when it was Lefty’s record. It’s all about these special moments, that’s why you do it. The greatest part of it for me is watching the kids, watching them celebrate. Over those 500 wins, I’ve been supported by a lot of great coaches and players. It’s an insignificant number for me.”