SOUTH BEND — In the No. 3 Michigan hockey team’s matchup against No. 18 Notre Dame on Friday, it didn’t take long for the Fighting Irish to demonstrate exactly how they planned to slow the Wolverines. 

Just after puck drop, Notre Dame (4-5-2 overall, 1-3-1 Big Ten) did something it would do all night, laying three crunching checks in a matter of seconds. And while knocking Michigan (9-2, 2-1) off the puck worked early on, it wasn’t enough to defuse its offensive firepower in a 5-1 victory. 

“I think the biggest thing is not letting it rattle you,” sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich said. “If you let it get in your head, it’ll affect you the rest of the game. And I think we did a really good job of just sticking with it and not letting it bother us.”

From the second period onwards, the Wolverines found their rhythm on offense, partly in spite of and partly because of the Fighting Irish physicality. They moved the puck at will in the offensive zone, crowded the net and capitalized because of it en route to the win.

Both Michigan and Notre Dame scored just once in the first, finding sparks on the powerplay in an otherwise dense affair.​ The Wolverines struck first just three minutes in as Samoskevich ripped a shot from the point that hit the post and went in. And ten minutes later, the Irish did the same, pushing Michigan out of position and netting a goal off a high slot shot. 

Throughout the first period, Notre Dame put hit after hit on the Wolverines, and while it slowed them down momentarily, the strategy showed cracks. Physicality took it away from the puck, and errant hits put it at man disadvantages. While Michigan pushed the tempo, play was relatively even and the period ended tied with shots 13-11 in favor of the Wolverines.

In the second period, however, Michigan exploited these cracks and knocked down the Irish’s defensive wall. With the forecheck firing, the Wolverines created time on offense, and with time they flourished. They outshot Notre Dame, 17-4, potted four straight goals and set themselves on a path to a comfortable victory.  

“We got to our game in the second,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “… We were connected, we won the net front offensively and defensively, and guys were working. They were hunting and tracking.” 

Three of Michigan’s goals in the period came from puck movement deep in the offensive zone. Senior forward Eric Ciccolini scored the second goal on a low to high pass. Sophomore forward Dylan Duke tipped a puck in by crashing the net and freshman forward TJ Hughes scored by taking a pass, pressing into the slot from the side and forcing Notre Dame’s goalie out of position. 

“We just stuck to our system,” freshman forward Adam Fantilli said. “We played low, we kept moving, we tried to get them confused. And I thought we did that, it ended up going our way.”

For the rest of the game, the Wolverines made time for themselves offensively, and weren’t idle with this time. Not only did they hold pucks deep, but they moved them rapidly and disarmed the Irish’s trap defense in the process.

“My bread and butter is the O-Zone, that’s the differentiator,” Naurato said. “If we can score off the forecheck, if we can score O-zone, that’s where you’re playing different style of game against different teams if you can do a little bit of everything.”

The whole time, Notre Dame stuck to its mantra of hitting Michigan hard, and hoping that’d slow it. But that physicality only served to the Irish’s detriment. They took numerous penalties when they needed offensive spark and the crushing checks and post whistle scrums seemed to only ignite the Wolverines further. 

The third period was slower, as neither team scored, but Michigan maintained the offensive edge and put up another 14 shots. But for the most part the Wolverines played smart, and coasted to the finish avoiding risk —or at least until the tension boiled over. 

With less than five minutes to play, two distinct fights broke out. The first with about eight minutes to go, and the second with just two seconds on the clock. 

“I think they were frustrated because we took it to them most of the game,” Naurato said.

Michigan had defused Notre Dame’s physical identity throughout the night. It had established offensive rhythm, it moved the puck well, and it won comfortably because of it. 

The last five minutes were more boxing than hockey. The Irish had tried again and again to assert the physical identity they’d been unable to build all game, and with the win locked up, the Wolverines weren’t afraid to punch back.