SOUTH BEND — Entering Friday’s contest between the No. 2 Michigan hockey team and No. 9 Notre Dame, Michigan coach Mel Pearson described concern in quickly reacclimating his four Olympians and reintegrating them onto his surging team.
“We have that (great chemistry) right now,” Pearson said on Monday. “… And now we get four really good players coming back, but our team has been so in-sync, so good, you don’t want to mess with that.”
The Wolverines’ loss to the Fighting Irish validated Pearson’s worries.
Michigan struggled to find a rhythm on both sides of the ice throughout the affair, failing to set up an offense while allowing a mirage of breakaways and dangerous attempts towards sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo.
The Wolverines’ returning Olympians — sophomore forwards Matty Beniers, Brendan Brisson and Kent Johnson and sophomore defenseman Owen Power — were unable to make a positive impact. They fell to the backburner at times, while actively hampering Michigan’s chances at others. A few more days removed from international travel and back on the ice with their teammates could have helped them return to original form, but the Wolverines don’t have time to spare.
On Friday, that lack of time caught up to them, with Michigan failing to add points and allowing No. 4 Minnesota to leapfrog them in the Big Ten standings with only one regular season game left.
Although the four Olympians undoubtedly strengthen Michigan in the long-run, their infusion into the Wolverines’ lineup disrupted the team’s chemistry, sending Michigan plummeting back to earth after riding high on a stellar seven game win streak.
“We were just playing a certain style,” senior forward Michael Pastujov said. “(The Olympians) just gotta see what we’re doing and what was working and kind of get back to our play style and what we do.”
The Olympians’ struggles skating in Michigan’s winning style was evident throughout the contest. With seven minutes left in the second period, the Wolverines managed to set up their offense in the attacking zone. Brisson held the puck in the slot, slowly moving towards the goal. His stickhandling attracted the defense, leaving Power open on the right wing. Power lifted his stick in the air, preparing to receive a pass from Brisson to launch a one timer at the net.
That pass never came.
Instead, Brisson held the puck for a couple moments longer before his usually-precise shot abandoned him, as the puck sailed harmlessly above the net. Gaffes like that were rampant throughout the night, such as Beniers and Johnson at one point physically running into each other during a third-period power play.
“They’re great players,” associate head coach Bill Muckalt said. “With the travel and being there, it was a tough game tonight.”
The Fighting Irish’s fourth goal — scored on a Michigan power play with its net empty and less than a minute left — epitomized the Olympians’ struggles.
Notre Dame defenseman Spencer Stastney snatched the puck from Power at the blue line and sprinted towards the empty net. Officials then blew the play dead after Brisson tripped the uncontested Stastney with his stick, leading to an automatic goal while Power launched the puck into the glass in frustration after the whistle blew.
“It’s tough going overseas (and) changing playstyles, having to come right back and get right back into it,” Pastujov said. “I think tomorrow they’ll be great, it’s great to have them back.”
With the conference race coming to a close and a first-weekend bye in the Big Ten Tournament at stake, the Wolverines got their four best skaters back. On Friday, they were present, but not good enough.
Tomorrow, Michigan will need them to be great.