CHICAGO — When University of Notre Dame freshman winger Michael Graham picked up Matt Hellickson’s long feed at the offensive blue line and made a break for the net in the second period of Sunday’s Big Ten contest against Wisconsin, what transpired might well have been a microcosm of his breakout weekend.
With the Irish trailing for the second time on the night, Graham put himself in the right place at the right time, skating behind the Badger defense for a breakaway backhanded goal that made it 2-2 and ultimately helped the Irish to an overtime decision. It was his second goal of the night, his fourth of the series and fifth point of the weekend as the Irish took five of six Big Ten points against the Badgers and climbed into sole possession of third place in the standings.
Graham, skating on the second line with sophomore Mike O’Leary and senior Dylan Malmquist, picked an ideal time to throw his coming out party, as earlier in the week the program announced injuries to junior forwards Cal Burke (appendectomy) and Cam Morrison (upper body) — Notre Dame’s third- and fourth-leading point-scorers, respectively — who will be evaluated week-to-week. Senior forward Joe Wegwerth (knee) will miss the remainder of the season.
Burke, a nominee for the 2019 Hockey Humanitarian Award, leads the Irish with nine goals to go with 12 assists for 21 points. Morrison is the second-leading goal-scorer for the Irish with seven and also has seven assists for 14 points. And though he’s appeared in just 12 games, Wegwerth remains Notre Dame’s sixth-leading scorer (7-4-11) and his four game-winning goals still rank tied for sixth most in the country.
Couple those personnel losses with the three straight games (and four of the previous five) that the Irish had dropped, and head coach Jeff Jackson would certainly need to find scoring from other sources.
“Sometimes things happen and you lose some of your top-line players, other guys get an opportunity to step up and Michael stepped up into that role in the power play where Cal Burke had been — and Mike O’Leary as well replacing Cam Morrison on that first power play unit — and I thought both of them did an incredible job this weekend going in for those two top-line guys,” Jackson said. “A guy like Michael Graham is thriving right now in his confidence and it certainly helps our team and creates more secondary scoring. I think he showed his skill and ability this weekend.”
The freshman winger potted two goals in Friday’s 6-4 victory in Madison, and added an assist on the game-winner for his first career multi-point game. He continued the streak Sunday at the United Center, with goals in both the first and second periods that erased Wisconsin leads.
The weekend’s performance marked the first two multi-goal games of the rookie’s career and gave him his first points since an Oct. 19-20 series against Omaha when Graham tallied a goal in game one and assist in game two.
But though Graham headlined the stat sheet against the Badgers, the Irish also saw contributions from a handful of the freshman class.
On Friday, Graham Slaggert opened the scoring with his second goal of the season, assisted by classmate Cam Burke (the first assist of his career.. And though Sunday’s game will go down as an official draw, the Irish picked up an additional point in the standings thanks to Spencer Stastney’s double-overtime goal, assisted by fellow freshmen Jake Pivonka and Alex Steeves.
“It’s huge for us — that game-winning goal, there’s three freshmen on the ice,” Jackson said. “It’s 3-on-3 and freshman defenseman Spencer Stastney scored the goal and that’s kind of where our team is right now. … Especially in the second half (of the season), you hope your freshmen have figured things out and have some confidence.”
As the Irish look to push ahead in the Big Ten and national landscape, they’ll certainly need that confidence to continue flourishing. But if the last weekend was any indication, they’re headed in the right direction.