No. 2 Notre Dame probably didn’t expect to have a tough weekend.
And, by looking just at the box scores of the home-and-home series, it handily triumphed over Michigan, 2-1, on both Friday and Sunday.
What the box scores may not have shown, however, was a tenacious effort from a steadfast Wolverine hockey team committed to upping its intensity and effort of play.
“That’s how we’ve wanted to do it all year is play with that pace and that energy and that speed,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “We have to continue to do that.
“You saw it in spurts in the first half, but I think we’re starting to get it now. … We’re going to put the guys in the lineup who are going to play with that pace.”
In two back-and-forth games defined by unpredictable opportunities that could have shifted the momentum toward either foe, Michigan couldn’t find any luck.
On Friday, senior forward Tony Calderone brought Michigan within one goal of Notre Dame in the first period, and Sunday, freshman forward Josh Norris did the same in the third period.
“I thought these were two of our best games all year. We worked hard, we blocked shots, we were physical, we were fast, we put pucks on net,” said sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne. “ … They’re one bounce away, each game, from going in the opposite direction.”
But, if the Wolverines were generating so many scoring opportunities — letting 70 total shots fly — why couldn’t they break the one-goal barrier that plagued them this weekend? How did the Fighting Irish score two early goals in the same fashion both nights?
A possible answer to both of these questions lies in the intent of Pearson’s game plan at the outset of the series — play with more urgency and pace.
Michigan outshot Notre Dame 14-11 in the first period Friday, and 15-7 in the second period Sunday, with no goals to show for it.
The Wolverines were visibly trying to increase their pace of play, sending defensemen like freshman Quinn Hughes — who only played Sunday — and junior Nick Boka flying past the blue line into the offensive zone to try to generate more chances.
In addition to frequent dump-and-chase plays by the offense, Michigan’s strategy was a noble one. In order to play against the best, it needed to overwhelm them with heightened aggression.
While the strategy worked to some degree, the Fighting Irish were well equipped to deal with a fast-paced team.
Notre Dame streamlined their attack from goaltender Cale Morris to defenseman Jordan Gross to forward Jake Evans — all of whom entered the series leading the NCAA in save percentage, shots on goal from a defenseman and points (Gross and Evans tied), respectively.
“I think every time you’re out there they play as a group, they play as five,” Norris said. “I think you gotta generate a lot of speed and it’s hard to sometimes.”
As the Wolverines pushed the puck up the ice with an unprecedented amount of urgency, Notre Dame was ready to pounce back decisively and, as a result, the Fighting Irish created numerous fast-breaks, and Michigan was left skating back on its heels.
What ensued were two early Notre Dame goals and a subsequent retreat defensively to thwart any oncoming Wolverine attack.
The takeaway for Michigan after this weekend was that it can skate with the best, but need to control the chaos generated by Pearson’s drive for a high-paced attacking team.