In its previous four meetings with No. 8 Notre Dame, the No. 4 Michigan hockey team came up short, over and over again.
The teams’ last two meetings cost the Wolverines a Big Ten regular season title, but in this affair, the stakes were even higher. Facing elimination and a spot in the conference championship on the line, Michigan needed things to be different.
The Wolverines (28-9-1 overall, 17-8-0 Big Ten) overcame the Fighting Irish’s (27-11, 17-8) stellar defense that gave them fits all season, winning, 2-1, to advance to the Big Ten Championship game next week.
“It definitely felt really good,” sophomore forward Brendan Brisson said. “When we found out we were going to play (Notre Dame) we were pumped. … It was a team effort.”
That excitement was evident early, and although both teams were physical at the blue lines, it was Michigan who established control in its offensive zone to start. The Wolverines regularly managed to enter the offensive zone and create a threatening presence with speed and crisp passes.
But Notre Dame’s backcheck was strong. Fighting Irish skaters tactfully positioned themselves in shooting lanes, quickly recovered from displacing passes and blocked a barrage of shots with both their bodies and sticks. The backcheck was so effective that most of the Wolverines’ 10 first period shots on goal came in a failed five-on-three power play.
With Notre Dame’s success on defense, setting up the offense and passing the puck around wasn’t working for Michigan. Instead, it deployed a speedy, downhill attack to draw first blood.
Sophomore forward Kent Johnson swiped the loose puck from the neutral zone four minutes into the second period and quickly charged towards the net before feeding it to sophomore forward Matty Beniers. Skating at the net with momentum, Beniers’ pass to his left set him up for a one-timer goal to give the Wolverines the lead.
“We were getting a lot of chances … and I just kept saying every time we got to the bench ‘It’s coming, it’s coming, we’re getting it’ ” Beniers said. “… We really played well defensively. We were pretty physical, and that led to (the goal).”
The goal looked to give the already aggressive Michigan control of the game, and a heroic left pad save by sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo three minutes later temporarily stabilized that control. But with less than eight minutes left in the second period, the Fighting Irish responded.
Defenseman Adam Karashik made a flashy, spinning pass from the left corner into the slot, and forward Jack Adams redirected it into the goal to tie the game at one.
With Notre Dame settling in after its goal, it took more strong play from Portillo — including multiple saves from the splits — to keep the affair tied entering the final period.
Multiple times this season, the Wolverines saw their chances against Notre Dame slip away in the third period, but this time, it was Michigan who seized control in the final frame.
“Patience and discipline, patience and not being frustrated and just staying with it,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “… (It was) a tight game, a playoff type atmosphere. … It’s good to be able to play in these and understand what it takes to win.”
Michigan remained patient, and by the third period, the Wolverines proved that they finally derived a winning formula against the Fighting Irish: Limit Notre Dame’s speed with physicality, and take advantage of any open look at the net devoid of the usual flurry of Fighting Irish skaters.
That open net look came four minutes into the period, where a centering pass by Beniers exposed a brief lapse by Notre Dame, with Brisson potting the game-winning goal into the bottom left corner of the net.
“(Sophomore defenseman) Jacob Truscott was kind of a beast in the corner there,” Brisson said. “He was able to get it to Matty, and I was just able to get open and pick my spot and it felt really good to score that goal.”
After struggling against the Fighting Irish all season, Michigan exorcized its demons against Notre Dame when it mattered the most, punching its ticket to the Big Ten Championship.