If Friday night’s pregame theatrics at Compton Family Ice Arena counted for anything, Notre Dame would have been up a goal before the puck even dropped.
The Fighting Irish’s home venue is the smallest in the Big Ten, but what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in noise and intimidation. Its 5,022 seats are densely and intimately clustered around the rink, while its low-hanging, barrel-vaulted roof allows for deafening acoustics.
On a “Whiteout” night in South Bend, these attributes were fully on display. Jim Cornelison, renowned for his performances at Chicago Blackhawks home games, delivered a thunderous rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” setting the sellout crowd ablaze. As the seconds counted down until the initial faceoff, a giant blue Notre Dame flag emerged from the raucous student section situated directly behind the Michigan net, as the Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” boomed from the loudspeakers, threatening to blow over 5,000 sets of eardrums out.
Long story short: Notre Dame isn’t an easy place to play if you’re a visiting team. It doesn’t help that the Fighting Irish are quite good at hockey.
So of course, Michigan won the opening faceoff and proceeded to pummel the nation’s No. 1 team for the next 20 minutes.
“That was maybe our best period of the year,” said Wolverines coach Mel Pearson. “We were dialed in, the guys did a great job showing up to play.”
And did they ever show up. Michigan took 17 shots in the first period. Notre Dame had just six. The Wolverines got to seemingly every loose puck and constantly put themselves in dangerous positions, while the Fighting Irish’s attacking efforts were sparse and mostly disjointed.
With an NCAA Tournament bid very possibly on the line this weekend, Michigan could have imploded under the intensity of the environment or the quality of its opponent. Instead, according to Pearson, the Wolverines took advantage of their situation, feeding off the arena’s energy.
“Without a doubt that’s the best building other than Yost that I’ve been in this year,” Pearson said Friday. “I mean, if that doesn’t give you goosebumps, if that doesn’t excite you and get you ready for the game, I don’t know what will. … That’s a great atmosphere, that’s college hockey and good for Notre Dame. You love to play in those environments, I know our guys did.”
That was apparent as freshman forward Dakota Raabe streaked down the right flank and threw a perfect centering pass into the crease, leading to a desperate save from Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris. It was apparent as junior forward Cooper Marody calmly set the puck on a dime for senior forward Tony Calderone, who let loose a dangerous shot from the slot.
These opportunities soon began to turn into goals. Thirteen minutes into the game, freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes skated into the offensive zone and fired from the blue line. His shot appeared to be going wide, but sophomore forward Adam Winborg met it with his stick, tipping it past Morris and into the net.
Shortly after that, senior forward Dexter Dancs snuck one inside Morris’ near post for an unlikely 2-0 lead. The noise wouldn’t come near its pregame levels again.
“The crowd was super loud,” said sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne. “They didn’t stop making noise for the first 10 minutes until we put that second goal in and we kinda put them to sleep, which was great because in an atmosphere like that, especially in college hockey, crowd plays a big role in energy and momentum. So it was great to get that on our side the whole night.”
Sunday saw another quick start for the Wolverines. Again, Marody beat Fighting Irish forward Jake Evans for the first face-off. Again, an energetic, high-speed Michigan offense earned a commanding advantage in puck possession and shots. Near the end of the period, the disparity was 15-2 in the Wolverines’ favor.
“Our guys were ready to play … That’s on them, that’s on our players,” Pearson said. “As coaches you can tell them some things and show them some things, but you’ve got to reach down to each individual and figure out a way to compete. And compete they did. We had a good first period, we were ready to play the game.”
And while Michigan didn’t find the net in the first 20 minutes Sunday, the chances it created kept the pressure on and kept confidence high.
“We showed that we could play with them,” Calderone said. “We were getting pucks deep, playing simple and it was working out. We were talking in the locker room, as long as we play like that it’s going to come.”
Calderone proved himself correct late in the second period. After Dancs forced a turnover in the Fighting Irish zone, Marody jumped on the puck and found Calderone all alone in the slot. 1-0, Michigan.
“We played with a lead all weekend,” Pearson said. “We were never behind against a pretty darn good hockey team.”
For the Wolverines to spring not only one, but two upsets against Notre Dame, that was a necessity. The Fighting Irish have scored first 21 times this season. Their record in those games? 18-1-2.
Notre Dame came into the weekend No. 1 in the country for a reason, and it showed why quite often. Morris, a Hobey Baker candidate, made 36 saves on Sunday, many of them highlight-reel worthy. The Fighting Irish outshot the Wolverines in the third period 14-4 on Friday and 12-10 on Sunday. But in the end, that wouldn’t matter, as in both games, Michigan threw the first punch.
The Wolverines didn’t allow rankings, all-world goaltenders or a rowdy Whiteout atmosphere to set the tone this weekend. Instead, behind two torrid first periods, they earned a season-defining sweep.
“We knew what was at stake. It was no secret this was our season,” Calderone said. “… We knew it going into it, so everyone got up for the challenge and we accomplished our goal.”