Saturday’s game between the No. 2 Michigan hockey team and No. 9 Notre Dame had all the markings of a playoff game — and it wasn’t just because the Wolverines were competing for a Big Ten title.
On paper, the Irish matched up perfectly against all of the Wolverines’ strengths. Their penalty kill and success at finishing checks perfectly foiled Michigan’s top-end power play and finesse-driven offense. If the Wolverines were going to win — and prevent a season sweep from Notre Dame — they would need to flash the kind of focus and perfection needed for deep postseason runs.
And as chants of “overrated” rained down on the Wolverines as they skated off with their second loss of the weekend, those deep runs seem far away.
“If we didn’t know what it was gonna be like (in the postseason), now we do,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said.
Forget that Michigan lost Saturday night on a controversial goal. More glaring is the fact that — with their four Olympians back in the lineup — the Wolverines mustered just a goal each game. Sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo stood on his head both nights, but they couldn’t give him any cushion to work with.
“One call doesn’t make or break the game,” senior forward Garrett Van Wyhe said. “… You’re never going to find a ref that you like while you play hockey.”
And that lack of scoring matters even more in the postseason. When one game decides who moves on, Michigan can ill afford to leave things up to fate. Whether goals come from nifty snipes or scrums on top of the net, the Wolverines need to dig deep and produce more.
Early in the season against No. 1 Minnesota State, Michigan found a way to score ugly goals. Then the next weekend, the Wolverines created desperation offense against No. 4 Western Michigan, winning in overtime after choking a two-goal lead.
Those sort of plays never came on Saturday.
And whether it was because Notre Dame goaltender Matthew Galajda made key stops or the defensemen in front of him blocked shots before they neared the net, it doesn’t matter. Playoff winners find ways to score.
Every time the Wolverines got close to doing that, they shot themselves in the foot.
Bad penalties — from senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg’s high-sticking call to fifth-year senior Mike Pastujov’s trip — ruined offensive momentum as soon as Michigan created it. Herculean efforts on the penalty kill kept the score even, but the lack of discipline and focus made it meaningless.
While the Wolverines killed Pastujov’s penalty with seven minutes left on the clock, four skaters went to the bench but only three went back out on the ice. Taking a quick head count, sophomore forward Matty Beniers hopped over the boards to fill in while shaking his head in frustration.
They need better focus than that if they’re going to win a Frozen Four game, let alone a regional semifinal.
Michigan isn’t there yet, but it’s important not to sell the farm. The Wolverines came a couple wins away from hanging a Big Ten banner, and they’ve still got the Big Ten Tournament to buff out their mistakes. It’s reasonable to expect them to shore up some of their issues, too, as the Olympians re-acclimate to college hockey after a month away.
But Michigan is running out of time — and fast. A month from now, it’ll head to an NCAA regional, likely as the first seed, and play teams just as tough as the Irish. The Wolverines are running out of days to make much-needed improvements.
After the game, Pearson likened the loss to Michigan’s 1998 NCAA Championship season, when it dropped two games to Michigan State and lost the CCHA title to the Spartans by one point.
“You know where the National Championship was in ‘98, right?” Pearson asked rhetorically. “Boston.”
And with this season’s Frozen Four in Boston yet again, the Wolverines surely hope they can make it that far.
But this weekend’s sweep was certainly a wake-up call, and Michigan can’t afford to snooze.