SOUTH BEND — Midway through the third period, the game seemed to be slipping away from the Michigan hockey team.
After getting on the board first, the Wolverines were clearly the worse team for the majority of the game. Constant mistakes led to chance after chance from dangerous spots for Notre Dame. It was only a matter of time before the Fighting Irish converted on one of them.
But with eight minutes remaining in the game, Michigan flipped the script. Just minutes after junior goaltender Strauss Mann once again denied multiple strong scoring opportunities on a long offensive zone possession for the Fighting Irish, sophomore defenseman Jay Keranen put a wrist shot through traffic and past Notre Dame goaltender Dylan St. Cyr. The goal led the No. 8 Wolverines (10-6 overall, 8-6 Big Ten) to a 3-1 victory over the No. 16 Fighting Irish (7-8-1, 5-6-1) on Friday.
“(At the) beginning of the year he was battling for a spot in the lineup and ever since he’s gotten a chance to play … he’s playing hard, really hard to play against,” freshman forward Brendan Brisson said. “Tonight he brought the offense, just walking in line taking a shot from the point. It’s a simple play but it was the biggest play of the game.”
Four minutes after Keranen gave the Wolverines the lead, Brisson extended it to two. Junior forward Nolan Moyle drove to the net and put a shot off St. Cyr’s pad to produce a rebound, which Brisson finished.
“That’s how dangerous I think our team is,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “You go up and down the lineup, and you might be able to shut certain guys down, but if we get enough opportunities we have enough players that are going to score.”
As opposed to the night before, the Wolverines got off to a fast start. Senior forward Mike Pastujov potted a one-timer that deflected off a Notre Dame defenseman to give Michigan a one-goal lead just over a minute into the game. But the Wolverines couldn’t extend their early lead. Instead, in the second period the Fighting Irish evened up the score when forward Alex Steeves deflected a wrist shot in.
The score remained tied at one entering the third period, but it wasn’t without a few scares for Michigan. While playing at 4-on-4, a bad offensive zone pass led Fighting Irish defenseman Spencer Stastney on a breakaway that Mann turned away. Minutes later, Mann tried to play a bouncing puck behind his own net and slipped, leaving the puck right in front of a wide open net, but Notre Dame couldn’t get a shot off.
Right before the end of the period, Michigan made another defensive zone blunder. A miscommunication left the puck up for grabs behind the net and a wide open Ryder Rolston in the slot, but the forward’s shot was gobbled up by Mann.
“It’s all about puck management,” Pearson said. “You’re going to get pressure at times, and it’s how you handle the pressure and manage the puck under those circumstances, and we need to get better.”
Early in the third period, the Wolverines gave the Fighting Irish a prime opportunity to take a late lead when sophomore forward Johnny Beecher took an offensive zone boarding penalty. But Michigan’s penalty kill did what has become the norm from the unit in recent games. It didn’t allow a single shot while constantly controlling the puck and forcing Notre Dame to chase it.
The kill sparked the Wolverines’ offense, and the two late goals resulted.
“We look at penalty killing as more of a kind of gain momentum rather than just to sit on our heels and try to just kill the penalty and survive,” Pastujov said. “Any time you can kill a penalty late in the game it’s huge momentum and it kind of slows down the other team kills their momentum”
For much of the game, it didn’t look like Michigan would be able to find a way to leave South Bend with two wins. But the Wolverines wouldn’t relent, even as the Fighting Irish continued to send tough shots at Mann and control the game, and Keranen and Brisson’s late-game heroics gave them their fifth win in the past six games.
“We bent a little bit but we didn’t break and that was critical,” Pearson said. “To be able to handle that push, and find (a way) to win the game is so critical and important. These tight games are going to help us in the long run going forward.”