If you don’t game plan around Adam Fantilli, he’s going to score on you.
That’s a fact that every hockey team in the Big Ten has come to terms with as the season closes out. But it’s never more apparent than when the freshman forward’s No. 4 Michigan hockey team takes on Notre Dame. Because just like he did in the teams’ clash in South Bend earlier this season, Fantilli caught the eye of every Fighting Irish on the ice Friday night.
In a game in which Fantilli recorded his nation-leading 50th point, that attention also limited his overall offensive footprint. Whereas he’s usually the kind of player to turn in two-point performances with regularity, that added attention forced him to settle with a lone powerplay goal.
Noticing that dip in production might seem alarmist, speaking to his talent as a scorer. But it also illustrates how opponents will play Fantilli as the postseason looms.
“I think he’s just gotta stick to his game,” freshman forward T.J. Hughes said about the attention Fantilli receives. “He’s a really good player and he’s super dynamic. So I think when he’s up to his game, no one can really stop him.”
But Notre Dame did stop him — until the waning minutes of the third period, that is, when his powerplay goal forced overtime. As a result, the Wolverines found themselves on the ropes for most of the game. Their offense struggled to break into the offensive zone, settling for dump-and-chase hockey. As players like sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich and freshman forward Gavin Brindley dumped in the puck and fought to regain possession, scoring didn’t come easy.
Fantilli wasn’t the cause of those problems alone, but his experience on the ice was a microcosm of it. Notre Dame finished every check, contested every puck and boxed him out on every rebound. Against a player who scores at historic rates, the Irish knew who they were dealing with and played appropriately.
Accordingly, Fantilli didn’t even squeeze a shot off until the start of the second period — and it took him until the end of that frame to connect his next one. He took his chances, got pucks deep, found open space.
But every time he did so, Notre Dame was right there with him. Defensemen shadowed him every time he skated past the blue line, gulping up the open space down low where Fantilli has scored so easily all season. As the heartbeat of Michigan’s offense couldn’t operate with his usual ease, the pulse of its greater scoring also slowed.
Which is exactly what Michigan should expect as it stares down the postseason. Because in big-time games, big-time players don’t get lost in the shuffle. They’re the focus of every opponent’s prescout. They’re the players they scheme around.
For all intents and purposes, the Wolverines saw the most comparable situation to that Friday night. As the gritty Irish played for their postseason lives, Michigan’s mettle — and that of Fantilli — was tested.
“They play really good structured style hockey,” senior defenseman Keaton Pehrson said. “They play simple, hard, and that’s what playoff hockey is. So they’re a good tuneup for playoffs for sure.”
In that tuneup, Fantilli made the necessary adjustments and subsequently made some breakthroughs. Especially in the 3-on-3 overtime period that played to his strengths, he found plenty of open space to stack quality shifts with his teammates. He nearly scored the OT winner when Samoskevich found him on a 2-on-1 rush.
But a Notre Dame defenseman was there, of course, because they weren’t going to lose track of him. A quick stick deflection spoiled that chance, and Michigan headed to the shootout soon after.
Fantilli can expect the kind of face-guarding even strength play that the Irish displayed Friday night more often. Because he’s the nation’s leading scorer, the first to 50 points and a Hobey Baker hopeful.
All those titles command a certain level of respect. And they also mean there’s no easy goals.
Not even for him.