SOUTH BEND — The No. 2 Michigan hockey team beat every other team in the Big Ten multiple times this season — except No. 9 Notre Dame.
And in their fourth meeting of the regular season, the Wolverines (25-9-1 overall, 16-8 Big Ten) once again failed to figure out the Fighting Irish (25-9, 17-7), losing, 2-1, and allowing Notre Dame to sweep the season series.
“A hard fought game, typical of what you’ll see in the playoffs,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “… (Notre Dame) did a good job defending. They always had three or four guys back, very rarely (allowed) an out-numbered rush.”
The regular season finale was physical from the start, with the Fighting Irish acting as the aggressors early on. Notre Dame paired its physicality with speed throughout the first period to generate quality looks throughout, but sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo — the starter in every single game for the Wolverines this season — held strong.
Whenever Michigan showed any sign of momentum on offense, the Fighting Irish’s disruptive skaters got in its way. On multiple occasions, the Wolverines rang the puck around the ice, displacing the defense only to get a solid shot blocked by a recovering skater. Notre Dame out-blocked Michigan 7-0 in the first period and 20-4 in the game.
Those blocks were amplified on power plays. In a second period power play for the Wolverines, the opening faceoff went right to freshman forward Mackie Samoskevich, who quickly skated towards the goal and ripped a shot. His attempt was blocked by forward Graham Slaggert’s stick, which broke in the process.
Suddenly stickless, Slaggert then hit Samoskevich as he tracked down the loose puck. With Samoskevich unable to control it, sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau swiped the puck and launched it at the net with momentum. His dangerous attempt was blocked by defenseman Adam Karashick, leading to a clear and rendering the power play lifeless.
The Fighting Irish’s success getting in front of skaters gave them breathing room. Notre Dame wasn’t forced to get aggressive on offense, helping it orchestrate the game to its own liking.
“They weren’t looking to do a lot on offense,” Pearson said. “Just flip pucks and try to outnumber you.”
With the Fighting Irish so dominant defensively, Michigan needed its defensive unit to be flawless in order to have a chance.
But eight minutes into the second period, the Wolverines’ defense made a costly defensive error when Notre Dame forward Jack Adams’ long cross-ice pass traveled through a mirage of sticks in the neutral zone to set up a two-on-one break and eventual one-timer goal by forward Hunter Strand.
The Wolverines showed life on a third period power play, when a goal from sophomore forward Matty Beniers momentarily humbled the Fighting Irish’s aggressive defense to tie the game at one with 13 minutes left.
But it was Notre Dame’s physicality that once again stole the show. This time, however, it occurred on a controversial offensive sequence.
With only three minutes left, forward Trevor Janicke slammed into freshman forward Dylan Duke — who was without the puck and facing away from Janicke — in front of the crease. The hit spilled Duke onto the ice, tripping another Michigan skater during his plummet.
With two Wolverines down in front of Portillo, Janicke had room to operate. A wrist shot by defenseman Spencer Stasteny on the right wing deflected off Portillo’s right pad, and Janicke potted the rebound into the open net for the game-winning goal.
“I did not like the last goal,” Pearson said. “… (Janicke) actually took two of our guys out and then we’re in trouble now. … He continues to the net, (the) rebound’s right there and we don’t have (anyone) to cover. Just a blatant interference.”
Michigan needed a win to give itself a chance to win the regular season Big Ten crown. But Notre Dame’s suffocating defense and physicality proved to be too much.
And now, the Wolverines’ hopes of a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament and home-ice advantage throughout have vanished.