Ask anyone on the No. 6 Michigan hockey team about junior goaltender Erik Portillo, and they’ll say he’s the best goalie in college hockey. 

He hasn’t always played like it this season, though. With a 47th-best .904 save percentage, Portillo’s performance has often fit into the middle of the pack rather than the nation’s best. Letting in two saveable goals on Friday night in a loss to rival Michigan State only served as a reminder of his struggles thus far. 

But on Saturday, Portillo stepped up in a major way. He saved 36 of 37 shots he faced, leading the Wolverines (12-7-1 overall, 4-6 Big Ten) to a 2-1 victory over the 12th-ranked Spartans (12-7-1, 6-5-1).

“He’s a stud,” freshman defenseman Seamus Casey said. “He lives for the big games, and he shows up all the time. … He keeps us dialed in on our own end, and just makes big saves.”

Michigan desperately needed Portillo to make those clutch stops, as from the first draw, the game opened up. Both teams flew back and forth down the ice and generated offense off the rush. But a high-paced game turned into another goalie duel, as shots flew off the goalies’ pads, rebounds bounced around the offensive zones and neither team finished a chance. 

Finally, Michigan broke through on the power play midway through the first period. Sophomore defenseman Luke Hughes’ one-timer glanced off the hand of sophomore forward Dylan Duke, then pinballed past Michigan State goaltender Dylan St. Cyr’s outstretched glove. The ricocheting shot broke a six-game scoreless drought on the man advantage and put the Wolverines up, 1-0.

But when their opponent came out of the first intermission with a renewed energy, Michigan began to retreat onto its heels. The Spartans fired off the first six shots of the period, forcing Portillo to step up. As the last line of defense against a slew of high-danger chances, Portillo turned away each one, giving the Wolverines space to settle back in. 

And as plenty of fruitless Michigan offensive possessions gave way to Michigan State rushes, Portillo stopped them all. Between acrobatic saves and stymied breakaways, Portillo played like nothing short of a brick wall. That much showed when he stopped a breakaway with five minutes left in the second period. 

“I tried to make a bit of a move at the point and turn it over,” Casey said. “… They got a breakaway, kind of a 2-on-0, and he made a huge stop. He bailed me out pretty big time there.”

With an unbeatable Portillo commanding the defensive zone behind it, the transition offense got to work with two minutes left in the second period. Senior defenseman Keaton Pehrson fed a cross-ice pass to T.J. Hughes on the rush, who redirected it into the open right side to extend the lead to two.

The Spartans opened the third period firing in hopes of a comeback, but Portillo held steady still. Even with near-constant pressure bearing down on his shoulders — and the Wolverines mustering just two shots in the period — he continued to save nearly every shot he faced to maintain the lead.

Though Michigan State forward Jagger Joshua batted a puck in with 4.9 seconds left to spoil Portillo’s shutout, Portillo’s stellar efforts rendered that one last-minute lapse a mere blip in an otherwise spotless performance.

And with more than a month until Michigan’s next non-exhibition game, Portillo’s performance gives him plenty to be confident in over the midseason break. Where Friday’s loss could have ended the first half of the season on a sour note, Saturday can reassure Portillo of his skill as he enters the long break. 

“You can take Sidney Crosby or Erik Portillo, and when they have confidence versus when they don’t, they’re two completely different players,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “It’s on him to find his confidence. … It’ll be good for him to go home to Sweden, eat some good food from Mama, and he’ll come back ready to go.”

Filled up with home cooking and remembering his most recent game, Portillo’s reestablished confidence gives the opportunity to turn the page to the second half of the season.