Thursday morning, Mel Pearson drove to work with a decision still to make. The Michigan coach had not yet decided who his team’s starting goaltender would be in its first game back from a three-week break.
While freshman goaltender Erik Portillo had started the first game in each of the Wolverines’ past two series, it wouldn’t have come as a surprise if Pearson decided to go with junior goaltender and team captain Strauss Mann, the reigning Big Ten goaltender of the year and more experienced player.
But during his drive, Pearson passed a billboard advertising Michigan’s Saturday afternoon contest against Wisconsin. The player on the billboard wasn’t Mann, nor was it any of the Wolverines’ plethora of talented skaters. Instead, it was Portillo, which Pearson viewed as a sign.
“Even though we only had four days back as a team, he looked good,” Pearson said. “So I guess I got a sign from the hockey gods. He was the guy.”
Regardless of whether or not the billboard actually factored into the decision, Portillo proved to be the right choice.
Michigan looked rusty early on in Saturday’s game, losing puck battles and failing to generate much in the offensive zone. The Wolverines had only put one shot on net in the first fifteen minutes, while the Badgers had nine. Had it not been for Portillo, Michigan would have found itself facing a multi-goal deficit against one of the hottest teams in the country.
Instead, Portillo turned away all of Wisconsin’s chances but one — an impressive breakaway finish by Badgers’ forward Mathieu De St. Phalle — to lead Michigan to a 5-1 win.
“He played terrific today,” senior forward Luke Morgan said. “He made a lot of big saves, especially early, that we really could have got behind if it wasn’t for him back there. … He controlled rebounds, he played the puck well up to our forwards so we could get back on offense well.”
Portillo’s strong first period gave the Wolverines plenty of time to get their legs back under them. The Badgers’ one-goal advantage proved easy to overcome. Freshman forwards Thomas Bordeleau and Matty Beniers both scored within the first four minutes of the second period, which was all Portillo would need.
“They scored and then they had some momentum right after that,” Pearson said. “They had some energy, some good shifts, and I think he just calmed us down and made some key saves at critical times.”
On Monday, Pearson said that his biggest concern for his goaltenders returning to game-action was that the sporadic nature of shots can’t truly be replicated in practice. While Wisconsin’s offensive threats were consistent in the first period, they became more spread out in the second. As they did, Portillo was only more impressive.
Minutes after Beniers gave Michigan the lead, Portillo stoned forward Ty Pelton-Byce after he received a cross-crease pass directly in front of the net. Following a goal from sophomore forward Eric Ciccolini to put the Wolverines up by two, Portillo easily turned away a wrist shot from the slot from forward Jack Gorniak.
Portillo’s most impressive save, though, came two minutes later. Forward Tarek Baker sped into Michigan’s defensive zone on a two-on-one and challenged Portillo from the left circle. Portillo allowed a rare rebound, seemingly giving forward Sam Stange an easy goal. But Portillo did the splits, denying Stange and any chances that followed.
“In the second period Stange gets behind us there, he gets two really good looks at him when it’s a 3-1 game at that point,” Pearson said. “But he was huge.”
Even as the Badgers attempted to push the pace more in the third period, Portillo continued to stifle them, finishing with 29 saves — tied for his most of the season.
Had Pearson gone with Mann, it’s possible the game would have had the same outcome. But Portillo justified Pearson’s decision in a big way, giving the Wolverines a much-needed win following their three-week break.