BOSTON — Heading into the season, the Michigan hockey team’s biggest question mark played between the pipes. Sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo had played limited games his first year, and no one could answer how far he could take the Wolverines.
Portillo answered with his play; but Portillo’s herculean efforts couldn’t get Michigan past Denver, keeping it within a goal of the National Championship. He played arguably the best game of his career — with all the pressure in the world resting on his shoulders — but the Wolverines couldn’t score to take themselves the rest of the way.
“He’s an unbelievable goalie and an unbelievable guy to have around the team,” senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg said. “He’s a competitor and he’ll do anything to win.”
Portillo certainly showed that on the ice. Facing high-danger shots that stretched him across the net through much of the game, he made miraculous saves look easy. He stayed confident between the pipes and never flinched against the Pioneers’ best threats.
The Wolverines just didn’t help him out. On both ends of the ice, they failed to capitalize on the winning position Portillo’s performance put them in.
Portillo had no chance to save the three goals he let in. Either his defense couldn’t clear loose rebounds, or Denver’s forecheckers hemmed the Wolverines in their own zone. No matter what acrobatics he pulled to stop the puck, the Pioneers won it back and tested him yet again.
When Michigan found ways to beat them to the puck, though, it couldn’t find a meaningful offensive pulse for most of the game.
Missed shots whizzed over the net and extra passes killed other high-quality chances. The Wolverines’ offense looked like a shell of itself against Denver’s committed defense, and Michigan never gave Portillo a lead to work with in the biggest game of the season.
It didn’t matter that Portillo rose to the occasion and made 30 big-time saves; he couldn’t skate down the ice and score for them. At the end of the game, the only shot that mattered was the game winner, which slipped past him after another mistake by the Wolverines.
Michigan had the pieces to go all the way. It had the high-caliber scorers, stellar defensemen and veteran leaders to win a National Championship. But because those pieces couldn’t click when it mattered, Portillo’s efforts turned out empty-handed.
“That guy will have a successful career in the NHL, I can tell you that,” Blankenburg said. “Just his work ethic and his attitude and just how bad he wants it.”
In October, it seemed like goaltending would be Michigan’s weakest link. On Thursday — after a brick-wall performance from Portillo — that weak link held the rest of the chain together.
At the end of the second period, Michigan waited on the ice for Portillo to lead them down the tunnel. Gloved hands showered him with pats and fist bumps after he carried them through another tight 20 minutes.
He was their MVP, but they couldn’t get it done around him.