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DETROIT — Sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo is the Michigan hockey team’s rock between the pipes. Always reliable, Portillo keeps opponents humble for the fourth-ranked Wolverines. He leads the Big Ten in saves per game, while Michigan sports the second-highest save percentage in the conference.

But no matter how dominant Portillo is, a little help never hurts. 

“We have to get much better (in supporting) Erik,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Because Erik is playing as good as anyone I’ve seen.”

In Saturday’s ‘Duel in the D’ win over Michigan State, Portillo got that help. The Wolverines’ defenseman sacrificed their bodies in timely blocks throughout the night, while solid stickwork and positioning limited the Spartans whenever they did manage to establish a presence in their offensive zone. 

Although only totaling seven blocks on the night, each one came at key moments to lessen Portillo’s workload and keep Michigan squarely in control. 

A hit from behind by freshman forward Mark Estapa seven minutes into the second period handed Michigan State a five minute major power play. The chaotic sequence resulted in two goals for each side, but a key block by senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg helped set the tone for the Wolverines’ early dominance of the five-minute kill. 

Spartans’ defenseman Dennis Cesana found space on the right side to rip a dangerous shot towards Portillo to open the major, but Blankenburg quickly shifted over, redirecting the puck with his body to send it harmlessly away. Late in the first period, the Spartans began to pressure the Wolverines’ defense and find continuity. Michigan’s defenders once again ended the threat while keeping Portillo unscathed. 

By the time Michigan State’s passes created an opportunity for defenseman Christian Krygier to strike late in the first period, the Wolverines clogged his shooting lane with three skaters. Krygier’s shot ricocheted off sophomore defenseman Jacob Truscott, once again leaving Portillo without a challenge in the crease. 

“We’ve been better lately at blocking shots,” Pearson said. 

Michigan’s defenders did more than just block shots to make Portillo’s job easier, they acted as another goaltender for him at times as well. 

Five minutes into the second period, defenseman Nash Nienhuis charged at Portillo in the slot with speed, ripping a dangerous shot off Portillo’s blocker. The difficult save left Portillo out of position as the puck trickled towards the left post, but senior defenseman Jack Summers wrapped around the post and boxed out forward Adam Goodsir. Goodsir looked to pop the puck into the open net, but the move bought Portillo time to readjust and freeze the puck, thwarting a golden opportunity for the Spartans. 

Whether actually recording a block or not, skaters sprawling on the ice helped disrupt Michigan State’s offense. In the second period’s major penalty, Cesana once again held the puck on the wing with a shot in sight following Blankenburg’s block. Freshman defenseman Ethan Edwards got an all fours in front of Cesana, causing him to hesitate before turning the puck over on an indecisive pass. 

“It’s all part of the game,” Pearson said when asked about defenders making plays in front of pucks. 

With the Wolverines’ defensive positioning so effective, the Spartans had to beat more than just the goaltender in the crease to score goals. Nienhuis’ goal with four minutes left in the second period exemplified that.

After forward Kristof Papp’s shot was redirected away from the slot by Truscott and freshman defenseman Luke Hughes, the rebound went right to a Michigan State skater, who beat the moving Portillo. Truscott gave Portillo — the usual last line of defense — backup, clearing the puck from the crease just before crossing the goal line. 

His clearance went right to Nash who shot it past Portillo and Truscott for the goal, but the play accentuated the extra help Portillo got from his defenders throughout the affair. 

“(Truscott) made a great play, and then he should’ve gotten an assist when he threw it out front,” Pearson joked. “… Obviously Truscott did a great job on that.” 

As the final buzzer sounded, the Wolverines stormed towards their net and mobbed Portillo in celebration. 

So the game ended in the same way that it proceeded throughout sixty minutes of play, with Michigan’s skaters surrounding Portillo in support.