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In the No. 5 Michigan hockey team’s Friday night tie against No. 9 Harvard, junior goaltender Erik Portillo spent the night in an unfamiliar position — on the bench. 

Portillo, who has been firmly entrenched as the Wolverines’ starter for the past year and a half, was a healthy scratch as Michigan extended its winless streak to four games. On Saturday night, looking for a different result, the Wolverines needed a spark. And back between the pipes, Portillo provided that spark by snuffing the Crimson’s.

In repeatedly stymying Harvard’s rush offense to the tune of 39 saves, Portillo powered the Wolverines from the back and propelled Michigan (10-5-1 overall) as it dispatched of the Crimson (7-1-1) in a 4-1 victory.

“I mean, (Portillo) is big time,” freshman forward Rutger McGroarty said. “…  He’s an unbelievable person, he’s super competitive, and he really stepped up tonight.”

It took the Wolverines only the blink of an eye to get going in the first period, as just two minutes into the contest graduate forward Nolan Moyle banged home a rebound on a wraparound from sophomore forward Mark Estapa to cap off a hectic first few minutes. 

But after this, the two sides settled into their respective playstyles, Harvard building chances off of the rush and Michigan attempting to build sustained pressure with deep puck movement. For most of the first, this firmly favored the Wolverines, who had several near misses.

At one point, sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich — and the fans — celebrated a perceived goal, only to have replay confirm it merely hit the crossbar and right post. But late in the period, Samoskevich would get to celebrate again — and it counted this time — as the Wolverines’ sustained pressure bobbled the puck loose to him in the low slot and he buried a snapshot to give them a 2-0 lead at the intermission. 

Playing with a lead, Portillo started to take charge. The Crimson stuck to their style of play, consistently charging with speed on rushes.

“Second period they turned it into a track meet, like trading chance for chance,” McGroarty said. 

Throughout the period, the Wolverines couldn’t contain Harvard’s speed. The Crimson’s breakout moved quickly, crossice and effectively, and Michigan had little answer. When asked postgame about how his team defended the rush, Michigan coach Brandon Naurato didn’t mince words.

“We didn’t,” Naurato said. “It wasn’t that we were turning pucks over, but we didn’t have as much extended possession tonight as we did last night, which feeds their rush game.” 

But while the Wolverines as a whole didn’t have an answer to the rush, Portillo did, turning aside chance after chance. 

The Crimson didn’t beat Portillo until early in the third period when their rush finally broke through and a two-on-one turned into a Matthew Coronato goal. But it’d be the only time Harvard would score.

The Crimson had numerous opportunities in an ugly, penalty-laden third period for the Wolverines. But while consistently playing at a disadvantage while clinging to a one goal lead, Portillo showed up time and time again to maintain that lead. When Harvard broke on the rush or built pressure on the power play late, Portillo shined as the last line of defense and kept the puck out of the net.

“Your goalie is your best penalty killer,” Naurato said. “They’re gonna get chances. We had good sticks, eating pucks, and then (Portillo) was really really good. So that’s the best of the penalty kill.”

With its lead intact, Michigan turned the Crimson’s frustration into offense as with just under seven minutes to play, McGroarty tacked on another goal for the Wolverines with a quick turnaround shot off of the rush that lofted into the top corner, somewhat to the surprise of McGroarty. 

“Yeah, I was surprised,” McGroarty chuckled. “… I just didn’t really look and I fired it and I kind of knew where the net was. … I saw everybody come sprinting up to me and start hugging me and I was like, ‘Oh, let’s go boys.”’

With Michigan up two again, Harvard started getting desperate and visibly angry, slamming sticks and starting scrums, but Portillo remained stoic in the crease. He blanked the Crimson with an empty net advantage for nearly five minutes to close out the game as Harvard threw everything it could conjure towards the net.

Late, freshman defenseman Seamus Casey sealed the outcome with an empty netter to make the score 4-1 and move the Wolverines back into the win column on the back of a dominant performance from Portillo, but one Naurato doesn’t deem as rare.

“That’s what we expect,” Naurato said. “In my opinion he’s the best goalie in college hockey.”

Saturday, steering Michigan to victory, he validated that opinion.