Seven months without seeing Notre Dame was certainly a long time to wait for No. 14 Michigan. That, though, was nothing to the 23 minutes on the ice that the Wolverines had to wait before finally exacting revenge. Down 1-0 without much of an offensive flow, there was a tangible, almost fearful tension in Yost.
Coming into the game, Michigan (5-3 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) expected the matchup against the Fighting Irish (4-4-1, 1-2-0) to be a grind-it-out, slugfest type of game, and it certainly started that way. Perhaps both teams were trying to set the tone with a few forechecks, or maybe it was a small, controlled bit of anger on the part of the Wolverines over how last season ended that played into the intensity.
Michigan was ready to score, as it had been for so long before. On its first power play of the game, 3:54 into the second period, sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes curled behind the net, firing a pass to junior forward Will Lockwood. Lockwood tapped the puck across the crease to junior forward Jake Slaker, letting him flick in the game-tying shot just above Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris’ shoulder.
The Wolverines seized control with another goal in the second period, this time from sophomore forward Michael Pastujov. From there, Michigan held on to exact some revenge on the Fighting Irish, 2-1.
While Notre Dame controlled the puck to start the first period, the Wolverines’ defense and freshman goaltender Strauss Mann held strong in the crease. Ten of the Fighting Irish’s 18 shot attempts in the period were from above the circles — Mann saved nine of them.
In contrast, Michigan took six shots right at the crease. Though they didn’t find twine, the Wolverines found better shots the closer they got to the net, and continued to capitalize there as the game went on.
“I give him (Morris) credit he battles he finds the puck,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “But you can tell — he goes down a little bit on (Nick) Pastujov’s goal. Anything behind the net, (Morris) is going to take away the bottom of the net … We got to (stay) a little bit hungry around that net, there’s a lot of opportunities there.”
Added Slaker: “We just try and take pucks to the net and bodies to the net. Generally the Big Ten is not a physical league, but I think if we bring a heavier physicality and play that game, I think we can be successful.”
Eventually, Michigan focused that intensity specifically on special teams. When sophomore forward Luke Morgan was penalized for elbowing a Notre Dame player in the first period and senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi for interference in the second, the Wolverines’ blue line held strong and allowed no goals and just four total shots during those penalty kills.
In contrast to the Fighting Irish, Michigan was dynamic on the power play to start the game. Though Notre Dame forward Matt Hellickson took advantage of a breakaway during a Michigan line change to get the Fighting Irish on the board first, 1:35 into the second period, the Wolverines didn’t waste much time, notching Slaker’s equalizer in direct response.
With last year’s Mike Richter winner in net for the Fighting Irish, the Wolverines shied away from the long-range shots, focusing on causing chaos around the net to limit Morris’ ability to proactively react to shots.
“If you just get to the net and create traffic and havoc that’ll help out…” said Michael Pastujov before the game. “It’s going to be a low scoring game, but as long as we can get some bodies and the puck near the net, we’ll be alright.”
Three and a half minutes later, Michigan responded with another close-range power play punch, as junior forward Nick Pastujov waited by the side of the goal and knifed in a pass on a sharp angle from sophomore forward Michael Pastujov behind Morris to put the Wolverines in the lead.
With the lead in hand, Michigan played with intensity and speed in the final period, outshooting the Fighting Irish 16-2 and finishing the game with a 37-27 shot advantage. Notre Dame had a chance to tie it on their own power play with four minutes left in the game.
But the Wolverines put offensive pressure on the Fighting Irish blue line rather than sitting back and letting the puck in their defensive zone. While risky, Michigan didn’t allow a shot while on that penalty kill and didn’t let Notre Dame bunch up by the goal by spreading out the ice.
It might just be one game, but at least for now, the Wolverines don’t have to wait for any kind of redemption anymore.