Ohio State forward Jaedon Leslie received a pass at the blue line midway through the first period of Friday’s game, seemingly in a position from which he could do little damage. He took a couple of strides and flicked the puck towards the net, likely just trying to get the puck in deep and establish a cycle.
But what looked to be an easy stop for Erik Portillo ended up in the back of the net, the freshman goaltender not even reacting until it was past him. The goal took the wind out of the Michigan hockey team’s sails, giving the Buckeyes a one-goal lead they wouldn’t give back on their way to a 3-2 win.
“You can say as much as you want on the bench (to) try to get everyone going, but if everyone doesn’t buy into realizing that it’s not that big of a deal and we get a lot of time left, you’re not going to get the energy back,” freshman forward Matty Beniers said. “I think other nights we are good about kind of letting it go. But tonight we weren’t as good.”
Leslie’s goal only augmented the discouraged attitude on the Wolverines bench that began less than two minutes into the game as a result of another Portillo blunder. Portillo went behind his own net to play a dumped-in puck as he does so often. Rather than settle it down, he whiffed on it entirely, letting Ohio State forward Gustaf Westlund scoop it up for an easy goal.
What made the goal even more devastating was the fact that Portillo is confident in his ability to play the puck and often takes risks in doing so. While Michigan coach Mel Pearson has said in the past that it scares him, he praised Portillo as recently as last weekend for his puck-handling skills.
“It’s kind of bound to happen from time to time,” Pearson said. “But it’s disappointing, especially when it’s the first goal of the game and you’re trying to set the tone.”
Following the first two goals, it was fair to wonder if Pearson would consider pulling Portillo. After all, he is a freshman who has yet to face much adversity in his college career. But Pearson stuck with him and Portillo settled in, only allowing one more goal on a redirection that he couldn’t react to.
Even though Portillo’s play improved the rest of the way and the Wolverines began to generate more chances, it ended up being too little, too late. With a two-goal lead, all the Buckeyes had to do was clog their defensive zone and get pucks in deep.
“I thought the bad one was the third goal, when they got up 3-1,” Pearson said. “Now you’re in desperation mode, and they’re just sort of hanging back. … You go through college hockey games and you show me the first team that gets to three, they usually win that game.”
Goaltenders allowing soft goals isn’t an issue that Michigan has had to deal with much this year, especially since Portillo and junior goaltender Strauss Mann began splitting starts. The Wolverines have had games where their offense comes and goes or they’re weak in their own zone, but goaltending has been a constant.
Portillo had been so impressive in his first three starts. There’s no need to overreact to two goals that he should have saved. Everything he has shown so far gives reason to believe he will rarely give up similar goals to the two he gave up on Saturday going forward.
But the night that Portillo finally slipped up was the same night that Michigan couldn’t afford it.