The Michigan hockey team has found success over its last few games, and, like when it had some success early in the season, it has done so with goaltending.
Then, the Wolverines relied on a rotation of goaltenders — freshman Hayden Lavigne earned two shutouts in the first nine games of the season, and strong performances from freshman Jack LaFontaine and senior Zach Nagelvoort led Michigan to victories against Ferris State, Arizona State and Lake Superior State.
Unfortunately for the Wolverines, the netminders could not sustain their level of play, especially with the volume of shots they began to face. Immediately after Michigan’s series against the Lakers, it traveled to take on Penn State, where LaFontaine and Nagelvoort were peppered with 106 shots over two games and gave up 11 goals.
It was a series that sent the goaltending, and the team as a whole, into a downward spiral, as the Wolverines gave up two or more goals in 14 of their next 15 games, accruing a 3-10-2 record over that span.
Michigan has righted the ship once again, winning four of its last five games heading into the Big Ten Tournament. Saturday, the Wolverines completed their first weekend sweep of the season against the 11th-ranked Nittany Lions, and the importance of good goaltending was never more apparent.
Nagelvoort again faced a bevy of shots from Penn State, but this time, he was up to the task. The senior stuffed all 46 of the Nittany Lions’ shots, fueling Michigan’s 4-0 victory.
The shutout was Nagelvoort’s second of the season and his third win in his past three starts. Paired with Lavigne’s winning effort in net Friday, the Wolverines turned in perhaps their most impressive weekend of the season, and it was fueled, once again, by their goaltending.
“Yes, it’s the best we’ve played so far, I think,” Nagelvoort said after Saturday’s game. “But I think we’ve played really well in spurts throughout the season, and I think we’re figuring out how to put it together now. And that’s important now that we’re going into playoff hockey.
“We’re going to talk about this Monday when we show up to the rink; what we played tonight, the game is going to be so much more intense than that next Thursday. It’s just a whole different animal when you get to the playoffs. We’ve seen it every year when we’ve gotten to the Big Ten (Tournament). So that’s what we’re looking forward to. Yes, we’re playing the best hockey, but we’re going to continue to grow and play even better hockey if we want to make it last longer than a game.”
Nagelvoort is right. If Michigan doesn’t improve at all heading into next weekend, it might be able to beat Penn State in its first-round matchup. But then the Wolverines will have to face No. 5 Minnesota, a team they have beaten only once in four tries this season, with the one win coming as a result of a late-game, three-goal flurry.
Yet, in playoff hockey, sometimes all it takes is a hot goaltender to make the difference for a team. And with Nagelvoort’s recent string of performances, Michigan will almost surely turn to him again next weekend.
So the Wolverines will need to play their best hockey to win the Big Ten Tournament and move on to the NCAA Tournament, and maybe that won’t even be enough. But if Nagelvoort can repeat his performance from last weekend, he will at least give Michigan a chance.
Persak can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @MikeDPersak.