SOUTH BEND — Entering the weekend, there was no real question as to how the No. 18 Notre Dame hockey team was going to try to stifle Michigan offensively. They were going to lay back, play a 1-3-1 and try to suffocate any offensive motion the Wolverines created.
Michigan coach Brandon Naurato knew it, his players knew it and anyone who has watched the Fighting Irish’s defense under coach Jeff Jackson’s tenure knew it as well. Naurato even started conversations earlier this week by taking Notre Dame’s shutdown defense as a given, and prophesied as to what would be necessary to overcome it.
“They defend hard, so you have to beat your check, win the net front, deliver pucks, get pucks behind them,” Naurato said Tuesday. “They just put a wall at the blue, like, you have to chip it in. … Why are they Michigan’s Kryptonite? Because they sit back, … so you have (to) lay pucks behind them.”
On Saturday, Naurato’s words rang especially true. Because despite jumping out to an early two goal lead, Michigan couldn’t sustain pressure offensively and couldn’t get pucks moving deep. Stymied by Notre Dame, the Wolverines’ offense sputtered late, and its lead faded late as a result.
“We were cheating for offense,” Naurato said post game Saturday. “Not laying pucks in, not being above your guy and then they beat you up the ice and have a numerical advantage.”
From the second period onwards, the Irish found the game they’d been looking for this weekend. They won battles on the boards, they interrupted D-to-D passes and they operated a clean breakout. And as they settled into this style of play, they disrupted what had made the Wolverines successful early on.
Michigan couldn’t create open space on offense. It couldn’t get pucks low or close to the slot, and its gameplan was shut down because of it. Low-to-high chances couldn’t happen, and Notre Dame didn’t have to shift positioning with pucks in unthreatening areas.
“I thought we slipped away a little bit from our game in the second,” freshman defenseman Luca Fantilli said. “… Just not getting pucks in, not being connected. Our type of game that we saw yesterday just wasn’t there.”
With the offense zone play caught in the Irish’s trap, the Wolverines turned to their speed advantage as opposed to set plays. And there were moments where it almost worked. In the third, freshman forward Jackson Hallum flashed blazing speed for a wide open breakaway but was stuffed. Minutes later, freshman forward Rutger McGroarty did the same, flying up on a rush, but this time getting caught and losing control.
Hallum and McGroarty created prime opportunities, but the issue was that these were Michigan’s best opportunities. Whereas last night, the Wolverines made plays happen by playing off of each other, tonight they were forced into an individualistic style.
“The big thing was we were trying to go a little one-on-one too much,” Fantilli said. “Yesterday we were getting pucks behind them, and that’s the way to break that system.”
But Michigan couldn’t break that system on Saturday. Notre Dame clamped down in a way it didn’t last night, and the Wolverines responded by reverting back to a game plan that might’ve worked elsewhere, but not against the Irish.
With rushes and individual chances driving the majority of the late game pressure for Michigan, Notre Dame’s defense did something it takes pleasure in doing,: It suffocated pressure.
“That one’s on us,” sophomore defenseman Ethan Edwards said. “We just weren’t laying pucks behind them when we needed to, and we weren’t hunting hard enough. … Just not executing our gameplan.”
That lack of offensive execution served to be the differentiator. The Irish were clearly improved, and the Wolverines shifted their playstyle. They knew what Notre Dame would try to do to shut them down for weeks, and on Saturday with their trap functioning at full force, Michigan couldn’t stop the Irish from doing it.