Struggling to produce meaningful offense, the Michigan hockey team needed a pulse to stay in the game.
Enter Erik Portillo.
As No. 3 Michigan (14-6-1) surrendered premium scoring threats to No. 18 Michigan Tech (10-7-1), the sophomore goaltender ushered Michigan to a scoreless tie, shutting down the Huskies’ offense in a high-pressure clash.
“I like to be the guy who can decide the games, and I want to be that guy,” Portillo said. “I want to win games for Michigan, and I feel like I helped the team to get the points today.”
Michigan struggled to cleanly enter the zone early on, with the holes left by its missing stars standing out every time a forward carried the puck up the wing. As a result, the Wolverines fell into dump-and-chase hockey for much of the first two periods.
Those opportunities for Michigan led to an abundance of shots, but they didn’t amount to the type of dangerous looks that the Wolverines have feasted on all season through their open-ice creativity. The Michigan Tech goaltender, Blake Pietila, easily handled long shots through minimal traffic, and his defensemen gobbled up the rebounds. Facing such a strong backcheck, Michigan had to settle for one-and-done offense.
Instead, the dangerous chances came at the other end of the ice, where Portillo was frequently tested. He only faced five shots in the first period, but many Huskies rushes culminated in high or wide shots that didn’t appear in the box score.
No scoring threat stood out as much as a Michigan Tech attack in the late minutes of the first period. As the Huskies entered Michigan’s defensive zone, Portillo saved a low shot, but his rebound landed in front of the net. Skaters crashed into the crease to fight over the puck, and Portillo practically shielded the entire net as he denied a goal.
Considering how much time Portillo has been off the ice because of the Wolverines’ mid-season break, saves like that stand out.
“(Portillo) didn’t take his equipment home, so he didn’t practice,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Since the Ohio State game, I don’t know if he’s been on the ice up until he came back and took some shots the last three days.”
Eventually, the Wolverines gained their usual composure by settling their passing down. Instead of forcing plays like early rushes, they reverted back to the possession-heavy game that signifies Michigan’s offensive identity.
But in the process, the Wolverines seemed to lose their composure. They creeped high up into the neutral zone and left lanes for the Huskies to sprint through, resulting in penalties as they tried to prevent them from scoring.
Combined with Michigan Tech’s speed, Michigan’s small breakdowns left Portillo in precarious positions. He handled the task with ease, however, including a breakaway stop on Huskies’ forward Trenton Bliss’s one-timer to keep the game knotted up, forcing overtime
“It’s something I’ve been working on all season,” Portillo said. “Trusting myself, knowing that I can make every save and I don’t have to overdo anything.”
That trust kept Portillo locked in, and the game remained scoreless for three periods. Portillo faced just as heavy a workload in overtime, robbing Bliss again on a penalty shot and facing multiple odd-man rushes as the Wolverines turned the puck over. Michigan Tech took just 27 shots in the game, but most were the kind that get recorded as goals.
Michigan’s depth faced a monumental test with so many missing regulars. Portillo proved he can be their heartbeat in close contests.