How Notre Dame stymied Michigan's offense
It was safe to say the Michigan hockey team had finally found its groove offensively before heading into last weekend.
The Wolverines have averaged 4.2 goals per game since the winter break, dominating teams with an onslaught of goals. They were making the right passes. They were syncing on set plays. They were finding the back of the net.
Yet against Notre Dame, Michigan could muster only a single goal over the course of two games — and it was scored by an extra attacker on an empty-net situation. The Fighting Irish stymied the Wolverines’ hot hands, sweeping them over two games at Yost.
Here’s how they did it.
Limiting Michigan’s opportunities in transition
Part of the Wolverines’ offensive success as of late was due to the high number of opportunities they created — high shot count, high amounts of Grade-A chances.
“Look at the game,” graduate transfer forward Jacob Hayhurst said. “We had chances, but they played such a structure and laid back game that we didn’t get the volume of chances that we wanted to get.”
The Irish’s structure that helped limit those opportunities was centered around their transitioning format. In the earlier series in South Bend, Notre Dame had played a 1-1-3, which meant it had three players fall back into the defensive zone, one player chasing the puck and one person there to help in the neutral zone.
After getting swept, however, the Irish knew something needed to change.
So they adjusted their systems to play an entirely defensive and more patient approach with a 1-4 structure. That meant four players would drop back and let only one person push forward. The fact that four players clustered in the defensive zone meant that the Wolverines would have a tough time with zone entry. When it’s hard to bring the puck into the offensive zone, it’s hard to create offense in general.
Michigan’s counter to this was to dump in the puck and chase after it, using speed to get to the puck behind the net before the other team does.
But Notre Dame was ready for that as well.
Disrupting Michigan’s forecheck
A large part of the Wolverines’ offense is their forecheck. They run a double forecheck system, which allows two players to contest for the puck behind the net in order to retain possession in the offensive zone.
“You’re trying to do ABCD to create those opportunities,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “And part of that is establishing a good forecheck, and we never could.
“Shouldn’t say we never could, but we had limited success at that.”
The Wolverines tried dumping the puck into the zone and as they met opposing players behind the red line, they’d forecheck.
But what they ended up doing was shooting the puck behind the net for Irish goaltender Cale Morris to corral and control, and that creates another target to contest, which makes Michigan’s two-person forecheck less effective.
“Then, now we have three ‘defensemen’ you have to forecheck instead of two,” Pearson said. “We just didn’t work hard enough or weren’t in sync enough on our forecheck.”
Already unable to carry the puck into the zone, the Wolverines’ struggles to dump and chase meant there were going to be limited opportunities to get set and work the zone for extended periods of time.
Frustrating an offense overall
Michigan was not prepared coming into the weekend. It knew what to expect out of a defensive game — pace, low shot count, physical play. But the players weren’t prepared for just how limited the amount of chances they’d get.
“I think if we were better prepared with the mindset that you just got to really bear down on the chances you get,” senior forward Will Lockwood said. “Because you’re not going to get many. These guys really just pack it and you got to understand that I think the shots were like 20 shots between the two teams after two periods.
“I think we got to better prepare next time, going into a game like that where, you know, you’re not gonna get too many chances, but you gotta bury them when you do.”
The Irish were doing everything to frustrate the Wolverines.
They sit back to prevent breakaways. They put a body on every puck handler. They know how to disrupt an offense. Michigan players had come in expecting more opportunities. They always do. But when they were limited and not converting, it thinned their patience.
“If you’re chasing the game all the time,” Pearson said, “then they just even collapse more on you and then you can get more frustrated.”
Added Lockwood: “A team like that, no one in the nation, is going to put up more than three or four goals. It’s a different mindset going in.”