NOTRE DAME — The Compton Family Ice Arena doesn’t look all that big. Built somewhat compactly with a low ceiling and risers, the rink almost has a homey feel to it. But this space, filled to the brim Friday night with fans of the hottest squad in the nation, may just be one of the most intimidating spaces for visitors.
And yet, against the odds, the crowd, the noise and the rankings wouldn’t matter Friday. To anyone present in the arena, it was evident that the Michigan hockey team was, in all aspects of the of the game, playing like the better team.
In what can only be described as a season-defining game for the 18th-ranked Wolverines, (10-10-2 Big Ten, 15-13-3 overall), Michigan derailed No. 1 Notre Dame (15-4-1-1, 22-7-2), 4-2, for both the first time this season and at a crucial point, with the Big Ten Tournament just on the horizon.
“I think it’s a confidence booster,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “We had two really good games with them earlier (this season). Shoulda coulda woulda — but until you do it you can’t say you did it. And we did it tonight. They did it tonight. And good for us.”
Not only was the game a peak for Michigan overall, but goaltender Hayden Lavigne had a standout night, as well. The sophomore was instrumental in allowing the Wolverines to maintain their lead throughout the game, with 34 big stops to show for it.
“He was huge,” said senior forward Tony Calderone. “He made some saves that could be SportsCenter Top 10. He’s been great, he’s been our best player, so hopefully he can keep it going and yeah, was happy to see it tonight.”
Over the first five minutes of play, neither team looked overtly dominant, with only a few weak shots taken on both sides of the puck.
It wasn’t until exactly the five-minute mark that Notre Dame’s goaltender Cale Morris — who boasts an elite .950 save percentage on the season — had to make a diving save to spoil a shot attempt by freshman forward Dakota Raabe.
And this save, which caused an already rowdy arena to become deafening, seemed to spur intensity from both the Wolverines and the Fighting Irish. The pace of play increased, with viable attempts taken by both teams, but neither able to find the net despite the shot count spiking.
But Michigan started to pull ahead, significantly outshooting Notre Dame, and proved unfazed by Morris’ stats.
At the 12:34 mark, sophomore forward Adam Winborg, who hadn’t found the net since the Vermont series in October, tipped in a shot from freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes, getting the Wolverines on the board before the top-ranked team in the nation.
And as the first period went on, Michigan just kept rolling. Three minutes later, the top line was able to connect, with senior Dexter Dancs sending the puck past Morris again.
Both teams took penalties in the final minutes of the period, leading to a heated 4-on-4. Despite the Fighting Irish having dangerous attempts with under a minute left, the Wolverines escaped unscathed. Michigan went to its first intermission having played one of its best periods all season: Doing the unthinkable by dominating the best team in the nation on its home ice.
“That was maybe our best period of the year,” Pearson said. “I thought we were dialed in. The guys did a great job showing up to play and it was very important to get that (two-goal) lead. They’re a tough team to play from behind against and to get that lead and we played with a lead all night … I give our guys a lot of credit.”
However, with sophomore forward Jake Slaker receiving a penalty for hooking just seconds before the first period came to a close, it wouldn’t be long before Notre Dame retaliated.
Under a minute into the second period, the Fighting Irish capitalized on the power play, as forward Joe Wegwerth knocked the puck past sophomore Lavigne to close the gap to 2-1.
But Michigan wasn’t ready to surrender its lead. At 4:27 in the period, Morris again could not bail out his defense, as the Wolverines kept the pressure on him. After a series of shots were pounded and deflected, Calderone fired one in, bringing Michigan’s edge to two again.
It wouldn’t be until the very end of the period that this would change. With just over a minute remaining, junior forward Cooper Marody was sent to the box for hooking. Just seconds into its man-advantage, Notre Dame’s defenseman Bobby Nardella cranked the puck into the net, setting the game at a close 3-2 before the final period.
The third period opened up fairly quietly, with just two shots taken in total over the first five minutes of the period.
Yet keeping up the general trend of the night, the Wolverines didn’t lay dormant for long. This time the production Michigan’s fourth line, as forward Nick Pastujov connected with his younger brother Mike, who sent in the Wolverines’ fourth goal eight minutes into the period.
The game stayed nail-biting, as the Fighting Irish rallied once again, for what looked like a goal with just three minutes remaining. But due to a high-stick call, the referees redacted the almost-goal, allowing Michigan to maintain its two-goal lead as the clock ran out.
Though elation from the big win set in quickly for the Wolverines, the team knows it must refocus for Sunday. As crucial as the win over Notre Dame was tonight, a victory Sunday on home ice could all but seal an NCAA tournament bid for Michigan.
“It puts us in a good position to have one heck of a weekend,” Pearson said. “Our guys will be ready to play Sunday. They’re anxious to get home and play a team like this in our building — I know our fans are. There might be a few tickets, but if you don’t have a ticket for this game find one.”