SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Putting the puck on net has been routine for the Michigan hockey team.
The team is second in the nation for shots on goal per game and ranks third in total shots. So when senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi sent the puck toward the net from the defensive zone five minutes into Saturday’s game against Notre Dame, nothing was out of sorts.
The play, a shot that looked to be a pass from the opposite blue line, miraculously went in against previous Mike Richter award winner, Fighting Irish goaltender Cale Morris. It was unintentional by all means. Cecconi had only anticipated an icing pass down ice, going as far as telling junior Jake Slaker to go for the breakaway right before the play.
But instead, the goal was scored and in turn, lit the spark in a team that had spent the majority of the game defending its own zone, and sent the Wolverines on their way to a 4-2 win.
“We got a break. We haven’t been getting many breaks to this point,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “So that first goal is a huge break for us. Got us off to a good start.”
Fifteen seconds after Cecconi’s goal, another one was scored, this time by junior forward Will Lockwood. Getting the puck in neutral ice, Lockwood skated ahead, pursued by only a single defender. He kept the puck at stick’s length, protecting it from the probing stick of the Fighting Irish defender. Slinging it as he cut parallel to the goal, Lockwood placed the puck out of Morris’ reach.
“He’s a talented player,” Pearson said of Lockwood. “He did that on purpose, he goes across flips it over his stick, continues on, gets it and that’s a place to shoot. He shot –– he’s got the goalie going right to left and shoots it back to the right. He’s a goal scorer.”
For a brief moment, momentum was on in Michigan’s favor. A proceeding interference penalty, one that was necessary to stop a dangerous opportunity for Notre Dame, was called on junior defenseman Luke Martin after he pulled a player to the ice to prevent a shot.
Sophomore forward Dakota Raabe drew a tripping penalty during the Fighting Irish power play to make it four-on-four. After both penalties expired, Raabe found freshman forward Nolan Moyle for a top-shelf over-the-shoulder shot that pinged off the crossbar and into the goal for Michigan’s third of the period.
“Raabe made a really good hardworking play and a heads-up play and kinda got me in a soft area and I just shot it,” Moyle said. “I closed my eyes, I didn’t even know it was in at first, but it did.”
A penalty problem developed early in the second period for the Wolverines. As Pearson noted, the only real problem in the game was getting back-to-back penalties to start the period.
The first one was fended off, with a breakaway attempt by senior forward Brendan Warren after a series of good poke checks. The second, committed immediately after the first ended, resulted in a goal.
Junior goaltender Hayden Lavigne was occupied with a screener. The Notre Dame skater was fighting for position in front of the net and blocking Lavigne’s view from the outside slap shot that found the bottom of the net.
The rest of the periods ended in both teams trading shots. Each opportunity resulted in a miss or saved shot, however, with suffocating defense and goaltending from both sides.
The beginning of the third period mirrored the end of the second. Michigan dominated the shots on goal, but both sides got equal share of threatening possessions. Sophomore forward Michael Pastujov got the puck in a scoring position before being tripped by a Fighting Irish skater, resulting in the Wolverines’ second power play of the game.
The power play resulted in dangerous chances but lacked the finish touches to convert the man advantage into a goal. Michigan saw increasingly more breakaway chances, taken away by Morris each time.
Martin got called for the interference with a little under five minutes to go. With a two-goal deficit, Notre Dame opted to pull the goalie early for a six-on-four advantage. The Fighting Irish failed to score a goal as the penalty expired but chose to stick with the empty net.
The decision paid off.
A faceoff loss in the defensive zone for Michigan resulted in a goal for Notre Dame. The faceoff win allowed the players to pass right out to a readied Alex Steeves, positioned directly behind the circle. A quick flick of the wrist, and the deficit was shortened to one for the Fighting Irish.
However, the depth of the Wolverines, who were down two players due to World Junior Championships, paid its dividends.
Raabe, who had defended aggressively all night, secured the puck and put the game away with an empty net goal to put the game away.
“We have a lot of guys on our team that can play hockey,” Cecconi said. “We have a lot of depth and the guys we brought in to replace those guys were unbelievable.”