ALLENTOWN, Penn. — Through two periods, it looked as though Erik Portillo was on pace for another one of his excellent outings. He was composed in the net and was rarely troubled by the opposing attack.
For the most part, that was the case.
A rough defensive third period for the No. 1 overall seed Michigan hockey team hurt Portillo’s final stat line, but the sophomore goaltender had an undeniable impact in the Wolverines’ 7-4 win over Quinnipiac.
“He’s the MVP of our team and you saw it again tonight,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “He made some saves in that first period. We scored early, then we got away from it and they pushed.”
When the final buzzer sounded, the Wolverines’ netminder had notched 30 saves and allowed four goals. Yes, he’s finished games with better numbers. Yes, he allowed all four of those goals in the final frame. But without Portillo’s steadiness in between the pipes for much of this battle, Michigan could have been headed home — and not to the Frozen Four in Boston.
Quinnipiac, the No. 2 seed, peppered Portillo in the first period. It attempted to match the Wolverines’ lightning-fast pace and tested Portillo by firing shots early and often. The Bobcat forwards consistently crashed the crease and tried to cause havoc in front. All that chaos resulted in 14 first period shots on net.
None of them reached the twine.
Portillo was simply brilliant, calmly turning away anything and everything thrown his way. As Michigan built an early lead, Portillo made sure that Quinnipiac would have little chance of a comeback.
As Pearson sat next to his star goaltender in the postgame presser, he couldn’t help but admire his efforts.
“This guy here to my left kept them off the scoresheet in the first period,” Pearson said, gesturing to Portillo. “He let us get our feet under us and built the lead.”
On paper, this was expected to be a heavyweight bout between top goaltenders. As good as Portillo has been, the Bobcats’ Yaniv Perets has been equally impressive. Entering the regional final, Perets sported a .945 save percentage and an absurd 1.07 goals allowed average. On top of that, the Quinnipiac netminder had recorded 11 shutouts.
But Portillo outdueled him for the first two periods, and after the second intermission, Perets was replaced by backup Dylan St. Cyr. For Michigan, reward seemed firmly in hand: a trip to the Frozen Four.
That notion quickly disappeared.
“I think we took it a little easy there in the second period,” Portillo said. “I think it’s a great learning experience for us. I think we can fix it for the tournament.”
The Bobcats came out flying in the third period and finally beat Portillo with heavy traffic in front. Then they beat him again. And again. Portillo’s stellar performance was suddenly marred by three goals. In fairness, none of those goals beat him cleanly — both the second and third goals came off of broken plays and ended with open, backdoor finishes.
Quinnipiac would add another late goal, but by that point, Portillo’s night had been cemented.
Beyond his presence in the net, Portillo is one of the most vocal players on the team. It’s part of the reason he’s so confident and poised in goal.
“You can see he’s the vocal leader of our team,” Pearson said. “When he comes around the bench you can hear him challenge the team. Good for him.
“And he backs it up. He walks the walk.”
Now, Portillo will have to continue doing so as the Wolverines prepare for a date with Denver in the national semifinals.