Keaton Pehrson had his head down, fighting to gain control of the puck along the boards on the right side.
Notre Dame forward Alex Steeves slipped the puck from the freshman defenseman and fired a backhand pass across the slot to Michael Graham, who entered the offensive zone unmarked. Graham’s initial shot was saved by sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann, but as the puck went through Mann’s legs, forward Cam Morrison was there for the easy tap-in.
After 44 minutes of scoreless, back-and-forth hockey, all it took was one lost 50/50 battle and one misstep from a goaltender who is usually rock solid to put the Fighting Irish up, 1-0.
“We skated by the puck, left guys open,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We didn’t win a couple one-on-one battles. I thought Strauss had it. It sort of squeaked through him. He had a great game, but we were just sort of soft on a couple battles.”
And not even four minutes later, Notre Dame made it 2-0 on a very similar play.
This time, senior forward Jake Slaker and sophomore forward Jimmy Lambert were in a 50/50 battle on the left sideboards. Neither was able to secure control of the puck, and defenseman Tory Dello sent the puck around the end boards to Graham, who senior defenseman Griffin Luce was in the corner defending.
Graham fired a backhand centering pass across the slot, right to the stick of defenseman Matt Hellickson coming into the zone. Hellickson’s one-timer snapped into the top left corner of the net above Mann’s shoulder, giving the Fighting Irish the two-goal advantage.
“Unfortunately, on the (second) goal, we just had a couple of bad plays on the goal,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “It just wasn’t one play. But we didn’t wanna stop on pucks tonight, we didn’t wanna contain our checks, we didn’t win as many 50/50 battles as you need to in these tight games.”
Notre Dame is known for being a defensively minded team that plays a simple, grinding style. When the Fighting Irish get the lead, they’re more than content to sit back and defend, knowing their solid defense and standout goaltender Cale Morris will be able to maintain the lead.
The difficulty of coming back from a deficit against Notre Dame made it all the more frustrating for Pearson and his team that defensive lapses led them to be in a two-goal hole. The Wolverines had the lion’s share of scoring chances throughout the game, but it was the defensive zone effort that ultimately kept Michigan from being able to extend its win streak to five games.
“We had our opportunities and we didn’t bear down on them,” Slaker said. “That’s frustrating. We’ve been scoring a lot of goals, but you know, it’s not always going to be that way. When we’re not scoring goals, we’ve gotta be even better defensively, and I don’t think we were great defensively tonight. That’s what led to the loss.”
Added Pearson: “We’ve got to take advantage of our scoring chances, it’s huge. When you can’t, then there’s no separation. Everything stays tight and a bad bounce or a bad shift, you can lose. And that’s what happened tonight.”
Coming into Friday’s game, Michigan controlled its own destiny in the Big Ten regular season title race. Win all four remaining games, win the conference — but that’s no longer the case. The Wolverines can now finish anywhere between second and sixth, and they’re firmly in the fight for home-ice advantage in the Big Ten Tournament.
Saturday’s series finale against the Irish, then, carries an incredible amount of weight in the conference race. And cleaning up the defense will be key in Michigan’s attempt to get the split.
At this point of the year, every game has a playoff atmosphere, even though it isn’t yet the playoffs. Defense is obviously important in every game, but in these late-season, crucial games, it becomes all the more important.
“I just think we need to clean up our D-zone,” Slaker said. “Clean up our details. We were circling a lot, we weren’t getting pucks deep when we could’ve, we weren’t getting pucks out when we could’ve. I think it’s just tightening up on the details and everything else will come from there.”