SOUTH BEND – For the Michigan hockey team, last weekend’s home-and-home series with top-ranked Notre Dame provided two nights of high-quality drama.
The Wolverines snapped Notre Dame’s 20-game unbeaten streak on Friday. Saturday featured a penalty shot goal, and another tally off a skate that arguably should not have counted. That was followed by a disallowed marker in the waning moments that arguably should have stood.
Players and coaches from both teams admitted the series split was a “nerve-racking” experience.
After winning Friday’s nailbiter at the Joyce Center, Michigan nearly completed an improbable comeback during Saturday’s third period. Power-play goals by sophomore Aaron Palushaj and freshman Robbie Czarnik cut Notre Dame’s lead to one. Palushaj and Czarnik, both of whom scored their first goals of the semester, revived the deflated atmosphere at Yost Ice Arena after the Irish took an early 3-0 lead.
The early deficits against the Irish have become an annoying habit the past two seasons. In last year’s Frozen Four semifinals, the Wolverines rallied from a three-goal deficit before losing in overtime. Earlier that season in January, Michigan fell behind Notre Dame by two goals before scoring three straight for a thrilling win at Yost.
But this time, when Michigan’s comeback bid reached its peak, a third party changed the game’s outcome.
With 31 seconds remaining in the game, senior forward Tim Miller fired a point-blank shot into Irish goaltender Jordan Pearce’s pads. A scrum ensued, and the puck came loose from underneath Pearce. Junior defenseman Steve Kampfer batted the puck into the net, only to have it waved off.
“I think I just wanted to crash the net, and I was kind of just looking and hoping that the puck would hit me on the stick,” Kampfer said. “But I looked down and it was right in front of me. I think I shot at the net three times.”
Referee Brian Aaron, who was positioned near the blue line, blew the play dead because he apparently saw the net come off its moorings, even though a video replay showed no evidence of movement.
Fellow referee John Philo was stationed next to the post to the right of Pearce for the would-be tying goal, yet never blew his whistle. Despite his perfect positioning on the play, Philo didn’t appear to contest Aaron’s ruling, which was upheld after an official review.
The decision halted the Michigan comeback and effectively ended the game. Saturday’s final frame, where Michigan outshot Notre Dame 14-3, marked the best period the Wolverines played all weekend. The Wolverines set up three scoring chances in front of the net with crossing passes in the game’s final minutes, but couldn’t get a shot off any of them.
“You’re never safe in this building,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said of Yost. “(The Wolverines are) a momentum team. The crowd gets them going.”
Michigan coach Red Berenson said last week that he didn’t believe in a “switch” that talented teams can “turn on” during moments of crisis. But if such a thing exists, it certainly appeared off as the Wolverines entered the third period down by three goals.
Tied for fourth place in the CCHA standings, the Wolverines are in good position for a first-round bye in next month’s conference tournament. “Urgency” remains the operative word for the second half of this season, and Michigan showed plenty of it during Saturday’s final 20 minutes.
“I think we played with more desperation in the third,” Berenson said. “But you can’t play one period against a team like Notre Dame.”
Turnovers and defensive breakdowns throughout the first two periods proved to be Michigan’s undoing. Eight minutes into the game, Irish forward Calle Ridderwall intercepted a Miller pass inside the Wolverine blueline. Ridderwall then slid the puck to forward Billy Maday, who redirected it with his skate past sophomore goaltender Bryan Hogan for the critical first goal.
Four minutes into the second period, Notre Dame forward Ryan Thang took an outlet pass in front of Kampfer, who was out of position, and raced to the net. Kampfer hooked Thang down before he could get a shot on Hogan, drawing a penalty shot.
Thang made good on his second chance, beating Hogan glove-side. It was the first penalty-shot goal against the Wolverines since 1997.
The Irish, hailed last week by Berenson as the best forechecking team in the conference, played excellent positional hockey during Saturday’s first 40 minutes. Notre Dame’s forwards harassed Michigan’s skaters as they tried breaking out into transition, and packed the neutral zone to get into the passing lanes and disrupt the Wolverines’ timing.
“That’s where they generate so much of their speed,” Jackson said. “Michigan’s a great team. … They’re great offensive speed in transition and they’re very skilled. They take full advantage of it.”
Wolverine acting captain Chris Summers said Michigan simply put on a better effort during the final 20 minutes. Palushaj and Czarnik also indicated that the Wolverines suffered from lapses in intensity in the first and second frames.
Despite missing a golden opportunity for a sweep, the players seemed to take solace from their third-period performance.
“We showed glimpes of (energy) in the first and second,” Palushaj said. “We showed a couple shifts here and there, but it wasn’t a full two periods. (If) we come out like we did in the third, we’re a tough team to play against.”