USCHO GAME OF THE WEEK: Struggling Notre Dame looking to get back on track against Penn State

Cale Morris (32 - Notre Dame) (2018 Omar Phillips)
Cale Morris saw his senior season at Notre Dame delayed due to injury, but is 5-5-2 in his 12 starts in 2019-20 (photo: Omar Phillips).

With one more opportunity to end a losing streak before the holiday break, Jeff Jackson doesn’t want his Notre Dame team to be fixated on results.

Notre Dame hosts Penn State this weekend for its finals Big Ten series of 2019. The Irish started the season hot, going 7-0-1, but have dropped their last five contests.

“It started with the lack of five-on-five scoring, then it progressed into pressing a bit too much offensively, and that was what was getting us into trouble at the other end,” Jackson said. “We’ve got to try and work hard offensively, try to keep things the right way to score goals, and not get three guys caught low and give up odd-man rushes and breakaways. That just boils down to having a process mindset.”

Jackson said he hoped the team had “bottomed out” after last Sunday’s 6-1 loss to Boston College. The Irish were outscored 10-1 by the Eagles in the home-and-home series.

“Because of the pressure of where we are, it caused us to break down on Sunday,” he said. “That’s the first time that’s happened, and maybe that’s why I said we maybe bottomed out. We threw our execution of the system out trying to score goals and that certainly made things tougher on the other end of the ice.”

Though the results haven’t been there as of late, Jackson said he’s been impressed with the team’s attitude and effort.

“The one area that we have to be better and more committed to is simplifying our game and executing, and that’s been the focus in practice this week,” he said. “For us, it’s baby steps right now. We have to start doing the little things well before we can concern ourselves with the outcome or the result. It’s always about the next shift and staying focused on the details of the game.”

He also doesn’t want to team to forget that it was undefeated and near the top of the rankings not that long ago.

“You try to remind them of that,” Jackson said. “We’ve been playing high-quality teams, too, which has made it tougher. We just have to be able to break the game down to its simplest form. We know we have the ability, we just have to not try to win the game the first shift.”

Not to make excuses, but Notre Dame might be slightly road-weary. After the Irish swept Ohio State at home, they played consecutive road series at Wisconsin and Michigan State. Home-and-home series with Bowling Green and Boston College followed. The team was able to charter to Madison and Boston, but the miles racked up on land and in the air are hard to ignore.

“It’s not so much the travel as it is the drain that comes along with the travel from a mental perspective,” Jackson said. “Getting home at late hours, you’re getting less sleep Saturday or Sunday nights. You feel it personally. The week is shortened because you’re leaving early so you have three days to prepare both academically and personally as well as the hockey side of it. Then you magnify that by, the last two weeks prior to final exams, school amps up in a big way here.”

Jackson credited his leadership group for keeping the team even-keeled, even though many of those players are also going through tough times with their own game.

“I feel bad for them, just because some of our seniors are not producing the way they were the first month of the season, so you tack on the frustration,” he said, adding that he’d love to see players like Cal Burke, Mike O’Leary and Cam Morrison catch a break and knock in a goal soon. “I’m just grateful that we have some mature guys that can handle that. It’s not just the pressure of the leadership role, it’s the pressure of personal expectations.”

Goaltender Cale Morris has also struggled, to his own standards, after the start to his season was delayed by injury. The senior has a 5-5-2 record, .890 save percentage and 3.07 GAA but is 7-2-1 in his career against Penn State.

“It’s a little different with goaltenders, like a pitcher in baseball and the quarterback in football,” Jackson said of Morris. “He needs to get that swagger back that he has had in the past. He’s not a cocky kid, but he’s a confident kid. I expect he’ll recover and respond. He’s too good of goaltender not to.

“He knows how Penn State plays and how they get the puck to the net. He certainly has the maturity to be able to deal with it. For him right now, it’s just the confidence aspect of it.”

With classes having ended on Thursday and exams not starting until Monday, Jackson hopes that everyone can take advantage of a home series with fewer distractions this weekend.

“We’ve got to work on winning shifts and periods and not get so focused on the result,” Jackson said. “If we do that, then we can peck away and try to play the way that we have to play to have success against teams like Penn State.”

Jackson said he sees similarities between Penn State and Boston College. After the Irish failed their exam against the Eagles, they’ll gladly take a redo against the Nittany Lions.

“It’s always a challenge when you play them — they’re a good hockey team and they’ve got good depth,” he said. “They’re balanced across every position, in some ways they remind me of Boston College right now. We didn’t handle (Boston College) overly well, but it’s a new week and we haven’t had to get on a bus or a plane, so maybe that’s going to be a helpful thing.”