Wolverines look for underdog magic in final conference series against top-ranked Notre Dame

Thursday, February 15, 2018 - 3:26pm

Hayden Lavigne hopes to slow down an explosive Notre Dame attack.

Hayden Lavigne hopes to slow down an explosive Notre Dame attack. Buy this photo
Sam Mousigian/Daily

One more Big Ten series against the top-ranked team in the nation.

One win, and the Wolverines can confidently say they punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

“We want home ice in the playoffs. I think we’re finishing sixth in the conference, so we’ve got something to prove and we’ve got two games left to prove it,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “And we’ll be ready. And I know Notre Dame will be ready, but we had two good games with them and we’ll look forward to it.”

It’s almost like the final scenes of the movie Miracle, in which the U.S. national team had the chance to avenge an early loss to a dominant Soviet hockey team on the biggest stage imaginable.

The atmosphere in Compton Family Ice Arena may not feel like the whole world is watching, but for the Wolverines and Fighting Irish, this last Big Ten series draws some stark comparisons with the backdrop of the ‘Miracle on Ice.’

The No. 18 Michigan hockey team (9-10-3 Big Ten, 14-13-3 overall) comes in at No. 15 in PairWise and is going into the lion’s den Friday to face off against No. 1 Notre Dame. The two teams will subsequently play on Sunday in Ann Arbor.

The last time the Fighting Irish (16-3-1, 22-6-2) and the Wolverines met — on the weekend of Jan. 5 — Notre Dame took the weekend sweep and didn’t seem to slow down on its way to a headlining position in the NCAA.

However, while many thought the sweep could’ve been a dagger in Michigan’s season, it did quite the opposite. The Wolverines were able to pick themselves up by their skates and come into contention for a playoff berth.

In two wins this past weekend against Michigan State, Michigan proved that it could finally streamline its now-reliable backline to its high-paced front line.

Junior forward Cooper Marody — who has clearly played himself out of midseason woes — and freshmen forward Jack Becker, along with defenseman Quinn Hughes, all notched goals on the weekend, proving a sense of versatility unparalleled by any prior performance.

Sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne’s .905 save percentage provides the defense with a crucial safety net as well.

“That’s why we come to play at a school like this, to play in these big games,” Lavigne said Tuesday. “With the pressure comes a little bit more excitement, comes a little bit louder fan base, so it’s a good atmosphere to be around.”

However, it may be too easy to boast such statistics in a series against Michigan State, who ranks last in the Big Ten. This is Notre Dame we’re talking about.

Fighting Irish goaltender Cale Morris claims the best save percentage in the NCAA with an astounding .950. Forward Jake Evans spearheads the Notre Dame offense with 32 points, but is supported by forward Andrew Oglevie — who scored twice in the teams’ last contest — and defenseman Jordan Gross, who are both no less deadly.

“I think we know what to expect,” Lavigne said. “I think that was kind of where you saw a lot of their early success in the season, it was their first year in the Big Ten, so nobody had really seen them consistently.

“ … It’s definitely going to be a little bit (of a) different game I think than it was than the first two, but it’s still going to be a tight game for sure.”

It’s never too late to have a fulcrum in a season. In a hostile environment Friday and then on familiar ground Sunday, Michigan has a chance to upset the Big Ten leader and solidify itself as a formidable foe in the postseason.

But if other big games are any indication, the Wolverines often get out to early leads and let their opponents inch back.

“We’ve got to learn how to play in tight games with a lead when there’s a lot on the line,” Pearson said. “We’re young, we’re young. We’ve got the third youngest team in college hockey. It’s not an excuse, maybe we’ve got a lot of guys who haven’t been in this position, in these games, and we’ve got to learn.

“It’s nice to learn some lessons on winning. I know everyone talks about ‘well when you lose, ah we’ll learn from it and move on,’ well, bologna. Let’s win and learn from it and move on.”

Notre Dame recorded losses against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State in the past month — two of which Michigan have prevailed over this season — meaning the menace is human, and the Wolverines could see an opening this weekend to attack.