For Brandon Naurato, facing Notre Dame is a nightmare.
Back in his playing days with the Michigan hockey team, the current coach managed a serviceable 5-6 record against the Fighting Irish. But those losses included some of the most devastating of his college career, including his junior year when Notre Dame snuffed Michigan’s title hopes in the 2008 Frozen Four.
And once he returned as an assistant coach last season, the Irish continued to give Naurato and the Wolverines ample trouble. Notre Dame claimed all four regular-season clashes between the two teams last season, preventing Michigan from winning the Big Ten regular season with a late-season sweep in South Bend — though the Wolverines did get the last laugh, winning their final matchup of the year in the Big Ten Tournament.
Now in the driver’s seat, Naurato can continue his pursuit of revenge against No. 3 Michigan’s toughest opponent. But for the same reasons that the Irish have haunted the Wolverines in recent history, it won’t be easy.
“I wonder what the record is since (Notre Dame coach) Jeff Jackson’s been there, but they’ve won a lot of games,” Naurato pondered Tuesday. “… They’re Michigan’s kryptonite because they sit back, so you have to lay pucks behind them.”
Naurato alludes to the idea that in order to create potent offense against the Irish, the Wolverines will have to play a different game than they’re used to. Michigan isn’t going to stray away from its identity — predicated on “playing fast, playing hard defensively, being physical and moving pucks in transition,” as sophomore Luke Hughes puts it. Frankly, the Wolverines would be worse off if they did. But they’ll have to adapt that identity, tweaking it to trump their defensive-minded opponent.
When Notre Dame sets up their 1-3-1 in the neutral zone, Michigan’s offense off the rush will be harder to create. As it patiently sits back in the defensive zone, blocking shots and getting in the way of passing lanes, it will present a challenge for the Wolverines’ dynamic power play — one the entire offense struggled with last weekend at Penn State.
“Michigan has always been able to score on the power play, and off the rush for the most part,” Naurato said. “But when that’s not there, how do you create offense? You can’t just be a one-trick pony.”
All weekend long, the Irish’s staunch defensive presence will force the Wolverines to break out some new tricks.
Once Notre Dame sets up its structure in the neutral zone, the only way past is to dump pucks into the offensive end. A fast team can utilize the space in transition to create controlled entries into the offensive zone, but the Irish build their 1-3-1 upon trapping in transition and getting rid of that space.
But Michigan is an extremely fast team; it’s almost always one of the first tenets mentioned when the Wolverines discuss their identity and has been for years. By Naurato’s own admission, a team that plays fast can beat Notre Dame, speeding the game up and preventing its defense from setting up “a wall at the blue line.”
So that poses the question: If Michigan is a speed-oriented team, and speedy teams can beat the Irish, why have the Wolverines struggled to win this matchup in recent history?
Take it from Naurato:
“On breakouts and in neutral zone transition, if you have multiple options for puck support then you can make good plays,” Naurato said. “Even if they’re all above you, it allows you to be fast as you’re going the other way. … If they’re stationary, it’s very difficult to get behind them, but if they have to come full speed at you, it’s easy.
“… If we pass and are stationary, then they’re coming full speed, and we have that speed underneath the puck.”
And therein lies the solution. Michigan must play to its identity, utilizing the speed it builds its team on. But it must be controlled within that speed, moving underneath and providing puck support to get past Notre Dame’s trap-focused defense, rather than just skating past opposing defenders on the rush as the Wolverines’ skilled players often can.
If Michigan can adapt its identity in this manner, it can revitalize its hot start to the season, pick up key points in the conference standings on the road and break the recent streak of Irish dominance.
Otherwise, Naurato may find himself once again haunted by another tough loss to Notre Dame.