STATE COLLEGE — The No. 2 Michigan hockey team may have won 5-1 At No. 19 Penn State, but they struggled defensively at times. The Wolverines gave up a flurry of strong opportunities as the Nittany Lions built offensive aggression throughout the night.
Ultimately, Michigan was outshot 34-24, and sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo was the difference.
Despite being unable to secure a shutout, Portillo produced one of his sharpest and most acrobatic performances of the season. His 33 saves kept Penn State’s fast and aggressive offensive from capitalizing on dangerous chances, propelling the Wolverines to a compelling victory in Pegula Ice Arena.
“He was outstanding,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “He’s been really good all year, and we’ve relied on him too much.”
Portillo was consistent throughout the matchup, but his grandest act of the night came slightly past the midway point of the first period.
Michigan was on its first power play of the night, but the Nittany Lions remained aggressive. Junior Connor McMenamin’s tactful poke check created a two on one shorthanded break. McMenamin fired at Portillo, who made a difficult save with his right pad.
The rebound went right to forward Connor Maceachern on the left side, who had nothing but an open net and easy goal in front of him.
Portillo, however, had another idea.
He sprawled across the crease and entered the splits, nearly defying physics to block the puck from such short range. The electric student section towering behind him was left speechless, as Portillo’s heroics kept the game scoreless.
“I make the first save, and then all I can do is just push as hard as I can to get over to the rebound there,” Portillo said. “And yea, I was successful this time.”
Added Pearson: “Big saves on the shorthanded, that was one of the keys to the game.”
Early in the second period, forward Ryan Kirwan created another Penn State breakaway. Once again, Portillo remained in command. Kirwan’s initial shot rebounded right back to him, yet Portillo held his ground and denied the second shot from point-blank range.
Portillo was forced to deal with heavy traffic. Central to the Nittany Lions’ game plan was keeping an attacker in front of the crease, redirecting pucks and limiting Portillo’s vision. He was unfazed, leveraging his athletic 6-6 frame to push back against defenders and stay focused on the puck.
“It’s a battle every night,” Portillo said. “It’s just about trying to see the puck and fighting for it. … It went well tonight, I’m happy it did.”
Portillo’s size came in handy during a Penn State power play in the third period. Defenseman Clayton Phillips secured the puck with only Portillo to beat on the left side. He moved forward at Portillo, who pressed his body up against the post. The high-iq maneuver — combined with Portillo’s size — gave Phillips virtually no place to house the puck, despite being unguarded and in close range.
Portillo’s dominance creates opportunities for the offense, who can be more aggressive with Portillo back as a steady fail-safe. His keen stick work directly generated offense on occasions, such as in the first period when he laced a perfect pass to junior forward Nick Granowicz on the opposite blue line, setting up a potent offensive sequence.
“I think it’s gotten to a point now where we can play a little high risk hockey because we’ve got him back there,” Pearson said. “We can play a little freer knowing we have a guy like him, he’s excellent.”
In a top-20 matchup in Happy Valley, Portillo created a dismal sight for the passionate home fans. He nullified Penn State’s strong attack, allowing Michigan to run away with the victory.