Two months ago, the Michigan hockey team never led in their first series against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish scored first and were able to sit back, establish a neutral zone trap and frustrate the Wolverines’ usually potent offense.
On Thursday night, Michigan flipped the script.
The No. 8 Wolverines handled the No. 16 Fighting Irish 5-1, pushing their win streak to three in the process. Getting off to a fast start was central to that effort.
“They’re a really defensive team who can shut games down,” freshman goaltender Erik Portillo said. “So it’s important to get that first goal and force them to open up.”
In a scoreless first period, the game looked on track to be another tight, low-scoring contest where a goal or two might be the difference. Setting the tone became all the more important.
Then Michigan exploded in the second and never looked back. Less than two minutes into the period, freshman forward Thomas Bordeleau tipped a point shot between the goaltender’s legs to secure a 1-0 advantage.
The Wolverines did not allow the Fighting Irish to hang around. Freshman forward Phillipe Lapointe doubled the lead when he knocked in a loose puck in front. Sophomore defenseman Cam York tripled it with a wrap-around snipe. Then, with 27 seconds left in the second period, freshman forward Kent Johnson glided across the front of the net and buried a shot to make it a four-goal lead — all but sealing the victory with a period still to play.
“We knew the first goal was huge with the way they play,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, I think we’re a much different team than when we played them way earlier in the year.”
Being able to play with the lead allowed Michigan to settle in and force Notre Dame on its heels. In the first series against the Fighting Irish, the Wolverines found themselves chasing the game and playing a brand of hockey that was atypical of their usually high-scoring nature. They made sure that wouldn’t be the case tonight.
“(We) were trying to get a lead and force them to come out of their game,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “When you get up one, when you get up two, now it really does not play into how (Notre Dame) plays normally.”
The biggest difference that the two months between meetings made is evident in the development of the freshman. Johnson finished with two goals, freshman forward Matty Beniers piled up two assists and freshman defenseman Owen Power dished three assists of his own. This showed a stark contrast to the first series when Johnson, Beniers and Power combined for just one assist in two games.
“The freshmen have made huge strides,” Pearson said. “They’ve learned how to play in gritty games and make things happen.”
Scoring first has been a point of emphasis for the Wolverines all season. The team looks more comfortable when they can grab a lead and take the game to their opponent. In the second half, Michigan has won four of their five games — and has scored the first goal in each of those victories.
When the dust settled Thursday night, the Wolverines had recorded a 5-1 statement victory over a ranked opponent. With the offense humming and strong defense and goaltending behind them, Michigan will look to keep it going by grabbing another early lead tomorrow night.
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