Michael Pastujov remembers it like it was yesterday.
Down 3-2 in last year’s Frozen Four semifinal against Notre Dame, the freshman forward found the puck at his stick off a deflection from the Fighting Irish’s Hobey Baker candidate goaltender Cale Morris.
In what was unquestionably the biggest moment of his, and everyone on the Michigan hockey team’s career up to that point, Pastujov tied them game amidst heavy traffic around the net.
Within five seconds, the rest of the Wolverines on the ice moshed him up against the wall. And within five minutes, when Notre Dame scored with 5.2 seconds left, all of that jubilation, all of the momentum in Michigan’s Cinderella run to Minneapolis was gone.
For the first time in seven months, No. 14 Michigan (4-3-0) will have a chance at redemption when it hosts the sixth-ranked Fighting Irish (4-3-1) and a chance to start strong in Big Ten play. While the Wolverines have struggled to find consistency outside of a series sweep of middling St. Lawrence, Notre Dame’s offense has struggled over a 1-3 stretch against fellow Frozen Four participants Minnesota-Duluth and Ohio State — scoring just five total goals. Michigan, however, is cognizant that the upcoming series might be more of a slugfest than last year’s 4-3 thriller in Minneapolis.
“Don’t expect a five or six-goal game,” Pastujov said. “It’s going to be a low scoring game, but as long as we can get some bodies and the puck near the net, we’ll be alright.”
Although the Fighting Irish’s top two goal scorers graduated, Notre Dame returns three of its top six point scorers from last year — defenseman Bobby Nardella and forwards Cal Burke and Cam Morrison.
However, the crux of the Fighting Irish resides in the net, led by last year’s Mike Richter award winner, given to the top goaltender in the nation, Cale Morris. In contrast to the Wolverines — who have rotated junior Hayden Lavigne and freshman Strauss Mann in goal — Morris has started all but one game for Notre Dame and boasts a .924 save percentage.
Despite the sudden end at the hands of the Fighting Irish last year, and despite Morris’ intimidating presence in the crease, Michigan seems to have a clear plan of attack — chaos around the net. In a 1-0 win over Notre Dame last season, the Wolverines scored the winning goal by crowding around the crease and screening off Morris’ view just enough for forward Tony Calderone to knock the puck in.
“(Notre Dame coach) Jeff Jackson teams have always been that way — they build from the net out, and their team this year is no different,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “He’s a good goalie. You have to find a way to score on him, you’re not going to get many goals on him.
“You have to take advantage of his chances and create havoc in front of him and get a few past him. You’re not going to score much on them… and that’s evidenced by their last four games when they played really good teams and they didn’t give up much.”
While some teams might try and shove away the emotions that come with a loss like last year’s, the Wolverines aren’t shying away from reality. April 5 will always sting, but the series gives Michigan an opportunity to truly start new and find last season’s magic all over again.
“I think as long as your emotions don’t get the best of you, I think it’s OK to go into a game like that,” Pastujov said. “ … It’s good to have a chip on your shoulder.”