Two-and-a-half periods of grinding hockey were over, and yet the game remained scoreless.
But then Notre Dame defenseman Spencer Stastney skated across the slot and fired a shot from the left side at sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann.
The puck ricocheted off a post and play continued. Sophomore forward Nolan Moyle immediately got a breakaway the other way, but couldn’t convert. Play stopped to review the events that had unfolded. The key question — what post did Stastney’s shot hit?
Video replay soon made it clear that the puck had hit the post all the way at the back of the net. And just like that, the Michigan hockey team (15-14-3 overall, 10-10-2-1 Big Ten) trailed by one against Notre Dame (14-12-6, 9-8-5-3) on Saturday’s Senior Day at Yost Ice Arena.
To Michigan coach Mel Pearson and the rest of the guys on the bench, it was clear the shot went in when they saw it live. For sophomore forward Garrett Van Wyhe, who was on the ice at the time, it was less certain.
“To be honest, I didn’t think (the puck went in),” Van Wyhe said of his initial thoughts. “But I was right there and I had to turn around a little bit, so I wasn’t sure. I just played to the whistle.”
That goal seemed to take some energy out of the Wolverines. A couple minutes later, forward Cam Morrison attacked Mann from the left side and snuck the puck by him to put the game away for good.
Michigan tried to fight back by pulling Mann in the final minutes, but the efforts fell short. The Fighting Irish notched an empty-net goal, and thus the Wolverines fell, 3-0. The loss marked the second in a row and a change in momentum after what has been a surging second half performance.
“When you don’t score, you’re not gonna win, and we just couldn’t make enough plays. Give them credit,” Pearson said. “They came and played like a desperate team, like their season was on the line, and that’s how they played.”
Within the first 30 seconds of the game, Michigan’s penalty kill unit went into action, as senior defenseman Luke Martin got called for slashing. The Wolverines did a good job clearing the puck and successfully killed the penalty. The unit had a strong night, killing all four penalties.
The Fighting Irish had their best chance of the period within the first few minutes. Forward Jake Pivonka corralled a stray puck in the neutral zone and immediately went one-on-one against Mann. The ensuing shot sailed wide left, though.
That was one of the few scoring chances for either side in the opening frame. Halfway through the period, Michigan still had yet to register a shot on goal, while Notre Dame had done so just twice. The Wolverines’ first shot on net came from sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg from the high slot, but goaltender Cale Morris handled it with ease.
The two sides went back and forth with penalties in the latter part of the opening frame. Defenseman Matt Hellickson cross-checked senior forward Will Lockwood with nine minutes to go. Right after the Fighting Irish killed their penalty, sophomore forward Jimmy Lambert headed to the box for tripping. That penalty, too, was scoreless.
And then in the final minutes of the first frame, Michigan went on the power play again. But it was the same story.
Right after the first intermission, senior forward Jacob Hayhurst nearly got the Wolverines on the board first. He attacked the crease from the left side and started to pull the puck across his body. But Morris somehow used his blocker to strip the puck from Hayhurst’s stick and keep the game scoreless.
Midway through the second period, Lambert skated off the ice and never returned. It was unclear what happened, but his future this season looks bleak.
“He’s probably out for the year,” Pearson said. “We’ll look at — I think he got X-rays. I think it’s broken, so I don’t expect him back the rest of the year. I was just talking a couple weeks ago about how we’re healthy and feeling good, then he goes down. (Freshman forward Eric) Ciccolini had shoulder surgery and it’s hard. It’s tough. But we have to carry on. Nobody’s gonna feel sorry for us.”
And then with around eight minutes to go, Lockwood fell to the ground after blocking a shot with his left leg. He was slow to get up and over to the bench. He returned soon after, but couldn’t play as much in crunch time.
“It’s tough, my knee I think is just bruised,” Lockwood said. “I kept going out there, trying to put weight on it, but I couldn’t go out there and it’s tough watching from the bench, I’ve been in that position before, and it’s hard, especially when your team’s losing like that, so it’s not too easy.”
A scrum broke out near the Wolverines’ net in the second frame. Van Wyhe and forward Mike O’Leary both got tossed in the box for coincidental roughing penalties. That confrontation was emblematic of the game — it was a battle, with both sides searching desperately for a leg up.
Eventually, though, Notre Dame found it — stealing Michigan’s spotlight on Senior Day.
“We’ll learn from it,” Pearson said. “We’ll go forward. Now we just have to take it game-to-game. Literally. Because we’re getting to that point now where that’s how it’s gonna be.”