At the end of November, Notre Dame gave Michigan its first two losses of the season. Two months later, the now eighth-ranked Wolverines handed them right back.
The two early-season losses came at the beginning of a rough patch for the Wolverines in which they went 1-5 to close out the first half of the season. But on Friday night, at the sixteenth-ranked Fighting Irish’s home rink, Michigan proved that it’s no longer the same team that got swept in Ann Arbor.
Not only has the Wolverines’ mostly young roster started to come into its own, but — more importantly — the team as a whole showed a greater degree of perseverance.
For weeks, Michigan coach Mel Pearson has been talking about the importance of being committed through the entirety of the game. It’s a problem that’s hindered the Wolverines several times through the early part of their season.
In their Nov. 28 match-up, Notre Dame’s neutral zone traps and physical style of play stopped the Wolverines in their tracks, keeping the game scoreless until the final two minutes. As the clock wound down, so did Michigan. The Wolverines started to show fatigue, making sloppy passes and eventually allowing a goal passed junior goaltender Strauss Mann.
But, facing Notre Dame again on Friday, Michigan’s energy lasted all 60 minutes of play, leading the Wolverines to a 3-1 win.
“I feel like we grinded a bit more than normal and it created more chances for us,” freshman forward Brendan Brisson said. “… To be honest, I feel like we were a lot younger team (during the first series). (Notre Dame is) a big, physical team to play against. This time we knew what was coming.”
Brisson thinks they’ve been maturing every day.
“Looking back on those losses that we had (earlier in the season), we could have won those games easily.” Brisson said. “We’re a lot more dialed in with our key concepts and how we want to play.”
Very little changed about the Irish’s style of play between the two series. While Michigan plays at a quick pace and relies on skill, Notre Dame was able to slow the puck, making the game more about individual battles than breakaways. Just like they had in the last series, the Irish dictated the style of play on Friday, taking away many of the Wolverines offensive opportunities.
But instead of getting frustrated or losing steam, the Wolverines focused on getting to the goal through traffic, winning battles and playing a grittier game.
“That’s the type of way we want to play against a team like that,” Brisson said. “We just have to keep at it. We just kept bringing it to them.”
The Wolverines hardly had 60 minutes without error. They started to let the game get away from them in the second period, allowing the Irish to out shoot them, 15-13. Pearson says his team “had too many lapses at times” and that they aren’t there yet.
“We were putting moments together,” Pearson said. “We’re not bad. But I’m crazy. I have high expectations. … We’re still looking for that perfect game, but we’re not here yet.”