SOUTH BEND — The No. 2 Michigan hockey team’s weekend against No. 9 Notre Dame was like flipping through a choose your own adventure book.
Win and the Wolverines at least maintained a two-point lead in the conference standings. Lose and Minnesota could sneak up from behind.
They chose to make their journey interesting.
In a game full of mental mistakes and soft defense, the Wolverines (25-8-1) failed to rise to the occasion against the Irish (24-9-0), losing 4-1. They had a chance to make their Big Ten title aspirations airtight, but struggled to deliver in big moments.
“You can’t leave the cue ball next to the 8-ball and expect to win,” associate head coach Bill Muckalt said. “And I think we just need to manage it a little bit better than we did tonight.”
Early on, Michigan didn’t have to worry about a hole. Senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg scored his 13th goal of the season just over two minutes into the game, and the Wolverines were in charge. But halfway through the period, Notre Dame evened up the score. The Wolverines’ defense looked unsettled early on, but lucky posts and puck bounces kept things even.
Luck didn’t cut it.
Junior forward Johnny Beecher was ejected for contact to the head during the first intermission, and Michigan found itself facing a five-minute penalty kill. The Wolverines played well, but sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo bobbled the puck behind his net and the Irish scored. That gaffe put them down, but porous defense compounded it as Notre Dame scored again.
“They were very opportunistic tonight and we just couldn’t dig ourselves out of that hole,” Muckalt said. “We couldn’t climb out of it.”
The Wolverines had a chance to reach the surface with a partial power play to start the third period. But against the nation’s second-best penalty kill, they faced an uphill battle.
And after a series of crisp passes and only one shot attempt that missed the net, Michigan squandered yet another opportunity. The Wolverines didn’t gel as a unit, with individual players creating low quality chances instead of the puck-moving dangers they’ve feasted with all season.
Trusting its penalty kill, Notre Dame kept aggressively attacking. With 13 minutes left in the game, Irish forward Solag Bakich went to the box for interference and Michigan had another chance to get back in the game.
But yet again, the Wolverines failed to produce. Notre Dame’s penalty kill jumped on their passes and frustrated them once more. Just like before, all their setups led to few shots, and they left the ice empty-handed once again.
Those frustrations only increased as Michigan kept trying to claw back at even strength. Forwards passed the puck back and forth to keep possession but no one stepped up to shoot. The energy-driven Irish blocked shot after shot, and the Wolverines couldn’t find the net.
“We gotta stick to our game plan for 60 minutes,” fifth-year senior forward Mike Pastujov said. “Notre Dame, their playstyle just frustrates you. (They) dump pucks, play super defensive.”
In the final minutes, with Portillo pulled and pressing for a goal, sophomore forward Brendan Brisson tripped Spencer Stastney on a breakaway for an automatic goal. Skating to the bench to the jeers of a raucous crowd, sophomore defenseman Owen Power whacked his stick against the glass, emblematic of the frustrating loss.
Michigan had a chance to end Friday’s game with control over its own destiny. Instead, the Wolverines left the ice clinging to hope.
Now, their Big Ten fate is out of their hands.