STATE COLLEGE — For the first time in 50 games, Erik Portillo didn’t start a game for the Michigan hockey team. Sidelined with an illness, the junior goaltender didn’t make the trip to Penn State. Forced to rely on junior backup Noah West, the Wolverines seemed to have their work cut out for them from jump Friday night.
And they certainly did — but it wasn’t because of West. Instead, the problems loomed on the other side of the ice. Michigan didn’t give West a single goal in support, struggling to establish offensive rhythm and getting shut out for the first time this season.
“West was outstanding,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “He deserves more from the rest of the guys.”
That response might seem like a coach burying his team’s performance, but it’s a lot more complex than that. Naurato saw the Wolverines completely wither against a militant Penn State. A Michigan offense that previously hung nine goals on a top-10 Boston University squad struggled to generate anything off the rush against the 13th-ranked Nittany Lions. Meanwhile, West made 46 saves and allowed just two goals. Naurato’s assessment is just simple, brutal honesty.
But therein begs the question: How do the Wolverines flip the script?
“We just got to play together and play as a unit,” West said. “Sometimes tonight we didn’t play as a unit of five, we played as a unit of two or three. We just got to play as a whole and I think that’ll help us grow together and have a better result.”
For the most part, West’s diagnosis rings true for the offense. Taking away center ice to push Michigan to the perimeter, Penn State limited the No. 1 offense in the country to a measly 17 shots — and just three in the final period.
Desperate to make offensive plays, the Wolverines relied on their stars to conjure offense out of thin air, rarely establishing extended possession in the offensive zone. Key to that, the Nittany Lions kept players back and didn’t give up transition plays. For a Michigan squad built for offensive track meets, it couldn’t win those races against Penn State.
“The whole team kind of made my job a lot easier,” Penn State goaltender Liam Souliere said. “We contained them and played deep all night and they didn’t really get any chances off the rush, which is pretty much where they usually get all their goals from. The team in front did a great job — made my life a lot easier.”
The result speaks for itself: For the first time since Dec. 27 against Michigan Tech, the Wolverines couldn’t muster a goal. But that should be put in context, since that was a game played with their key players still at the World Junior Championship. Friday’s result stings more for an offense that had all its weapons.
If Michigan hopes to rekindle that previously smoldering offense, it has to win that transition battle. And the timing to do so couldn’t be more important. With Portillo expected to be out for Saturday’s rematch as of publishing, West will remain between the pipes. Certainly, the Wolverines trust him with the task.
“He was unreal tonight,” junior defenseman Jacob Truscott said. “He was great for us. He deserved a win tonight and we didn’t get that done, but he’s a great player and it’s good to have him back there.”
But they can’t win a game without scoring goals, and they’ll need at least a few to leave State College with a split.