In the first half of the season, much was uncovered about the Michigan hockey team. From the offense’s recurrent struggles to the proven abilities from the defense and goaltending, it’s fairly clear what to expect on any given night.
It has yet to be unveiled, though, how exactly the Wolverines will fare against No. 14 Notre Dame. Before the new year, Michigan played in series against five of its six conference opponents — but not the Fighting Irish. Both series between these two teams are still on the horizon.
This weekend in South Bend will be the first indicator of how the two teams really match up. But regardless of not having faced Notre Dame yet this season, the Wolverines have a clear picture of what is ahead.
“They’re strong defensively,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “They’re a very systematic team. They play their systems well as a group and as a team. They don’t beat themselves so you have to go and make plays and beat them. That’s the difficulty with playing against them.”
Goaltender Cale Morris is part of why the Fighting Irish can be so hard to defeat. Last season he had the eighth-best save percentage in the nation, and he was a Hobey Baker Award finalist the season before. His save percentage of .916 this season isn’t quite as good as in the past, but he still possesses the ability to trouble an offense.
“You need to get lots of pucks on him and get bodies in front of him,” said fifth-year senior forward Jacob Hayhurst. “The harder it is for him to see that puck every time we get an opportunity, the harder it’s going to be for him to save it. We want to get pucks and bodies to the net all game.”
That sentiment of spraying pucks at the net and establishing position near the crease is everyday language in hockey. It’s something the Wolverines have stressed time and time again.
Michigan has lived up to the first part of the mantra, as it has notched the ninth-most shots on goal in the nation. The issue resides in the latter half as the Wolverines convert less than seven percent of those shots. And against a talented goaltender in Morris, it’s all the more important that Michigan gets to the crease to help sneak the puck between the pipes.
To Pearson, Notre Dame is similar to the Wolverines in that its offense doesn’t score a ton and thus doesn’t create much distance. But since the Fighting Irish limit their mistakes, coming back from even minimal deficits against them can be tough.
“They’re really good if they get out ahead of you,” Pearson said. “They just suffocate you, so we’re gonna have to get out, try to play with that lead and then just stay with it.”
To prevent Notre Dame from establishing an early lead, Michigan will need to focus on players such as forwards Mike O’Leary and Cam Morrison, who lead the team in points. If the Wolverines can do that while making improvements on the attack, the team could start the year on a positive note.
“We’ve had great games with them,” Pearson said. “We’ve found ways to win. We’ve played well defensively for the most part against them, too. So I think we match up well with them. It’s going to be good, really good games. But again, we have to score.”