The Michigan hockey team’s last loss against Notre Dame left a bad taste in the Wolverines’ mouths. After losing their fourth game against the Fighting Irish in four tries, Michigan returned to Ann Arbor defeated.
Tonight told a different story. After having two weeks together with their entire team, the Wolverines played as a unit. And, in the end, their physical play aided them in the win.
It started in the first period when freshman forward Mark Estapa leveled a Fighting Irish forward. Later, he stood up to defensemen Zach Plucinski right in front of the Notre Dame bench when Plucinski tried to hit him.
The message was clear: Estapa and the rest of the Wolverines were prepared to make the Fighting Irish pay.
“We felt last time we played them we weren’t going through people and finishing our check,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We had to do more of that to make sure when we had chances later on, we did it in a disciplined way.”
Discipline again showed through junior forward Johnny Beecher’s massive hit on forward Jake Pivonka in the Michigan logo. Losing the puck’s path in the process, Beecher stood Pivonka up and knocked him down. It was clear Notre Dame wasn’t the bully anymore.
“We flipped the script,” sophomore forward Matty Beniers said. “They’re usually the more physical team. … Beecher was going around the ice and hitting so many players. It motivated our bench.”
And it wasn’t just Beecher. Junior defenseman Keaton Pehrson acted as a road block along the boards, withstanding hits and stopping the Fighting Irish’s offense. Similarly, freshman defenseman Ethan Edwards tracked back and pounced on a Notre Dame forward who tried to enter the Wolverines’ defensive zone. Stealing the puck for his side, Michigan had regained possession.
It was clear the Wolverines were tired of not being considered a gritty side.
“There’s a stereotype on our team that since we’re so skilled, we play soft,” sophomore forward Brendan Brisson said. “That’s just not true. Everybody was finishing their hits tonight and down the road that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
If Michigan continues to finish its hits and win battles in the corner, it’s hard to beat. Playoff hockey is a different style — one in which physicality and aggression are requisites — and Michigan was on board with it.
Not only did the Wolverines play aggressively, but they did so while playing clean. Michigan only earned one penalty in the game. It came in the sixth minute of the third period when Beniers was sent to the box for embellishment, resulting in a 4-on-4.
“As physical as we were, we didn’t take any penalties,” Pearson said. “We needed to do that and have to understand it moving forward.”