SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For the first two minutes, it looked like a nightmare start to the game for Michigan.
No. 14 Notre Dame (10-9-3 overall, 5-5-2-1 Big Ten) came out fast after losing on Friday night, and just 1:45 into the game, a bouncing puck flipped over sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann’s shoulder before he even had a chance to make the save.
Eleven weeks ago, that kind of fluky goal to start a game was the Wolverines’ undoing on the road at Western Michigan. But Saturday night, Michigan (9-11-2, 4-7-1-0) came back to complete just its second sweep of the season, beating the Fighting Irish, 3-1.
“It’s just a puck that bounced two or three times and ends up in our net,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Just one of those things, but I like the resiliency. We’re starting to see that. Before, when things maybe went south a little bit, we were flat, but not in tonight’s game, and I think that’s a good sign going forward.”
After the early Notre Dame goal, Michigan settled in and shots were 10-3 in favor of the Wolverines midway through the period. But despite two power-play opportunities in the period, Michigan couldn’t find twine to even the score.
It took until the Wolverines’ fourth opportunity with the man advantage to get on the scoreboard, but sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg didn’t hesitate when he saw the opportunity for the tying goal. Freshman defenseman Cam York identified a potential weakness on an earlier power play, and he told Blankenburg to pass it to him on the half-wall and he’d pass it back up to the blueline to Blankenburg for the shot.
It worked just as they’d discussed.
Blankenburg held onto the puck in the high slot, moving just enough to create a shooting lane for himself, and he snapped in a shot that Notre Dame wasn’t expecting. It found the top corner of the net behind goaltender Cale Morris, tying the score at one.
“That was big, because we’d had a lot of pressure on them and hit a couple posts (and the) crossbar there on one, so that was a big goal,” Pearson said. “We did a good job there. We stayed with it, for the most part.”
After Blankenburg tied things up, it seemed as though the ice tilted in Michigan’s favor. The Wolverines outshot the Irish 18-7 in the period, and it took just a few more minutes after Blankenburg’s goal for Michigan to take the lead.
Senior forward Will Lockwood worked his way around the offensive zone and fired a pass from the blueline to sophomore defenseman Jack Summers as he worked in in front of Morris. In an instant, Summers switched from his forehand to his backhand and sent the puck over Morris’s shoulder, handing Michigan a 2-1 lead that proved decisive.
In the third period, the Wolverines held strong defensively against a Notre Dame team that pressured hard to find the tying goal. The Wolverines seemed content to sit back and defend their one-goal lead, and with Mann as the backstop, Michigan kept the Irish off the scoresheet.
“They were just trying to play long and get pucks behind us, and we were just trying to get pucks out,” Blankenburg said. “I think we did a good job as a D-corps and as forwards, and Strauss helped us out a lot, too, with getting pucks out of our zone and in their zone.”
With just 19.1 seconds left, senior forward Jake Slaker hit the empty net for his third empty-net goal of the season to seal Michigan’s first sweep in Big Ten play.
Just over halfway through the conference schedule, the Wolverines sit in fifth place, but with four wins in their last six Big Ten games, Pearson is hopeful that the sweep over the Irish will be a launchpad for a run in the second half of the year.
“I can’t put it in words how big (this sweep) is,” Pearson said. “It helps us get those critical points in the Big Ten. We’re now halfway through the Big Ten. We don’t like where we’re standing, but we have something to say about the future, and that’s good.”