If all the Michigan hockey team’s games against Notre Dame this year were rolled into one, this would be the final score. But despite the fact that the fourth-ranked Wolverines (23-3-2 CCHA, 26-7-3 overall) thoroughly outplayed the Fighting Irish (3-20-5, 5-25-6) during the regular season, Michigan players and coaches are not taking Notre Dame lightly entering the teams’ best-of-three first-round CCHA playoff series this weekend at Yost Ice Arena. Michigan is the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, while last-place Notre Dame is slotted twelfth.
“I think (Notre Dame) is a sleeping giant,” senior captain Eric Nystrom said. “I see them as a real dangerous opponent.”
Never mind the fact that a sweep by the Wolverines would mean more Michigan wins against Notre Dame this season than the Irish had against all their opponents this year (5). In the playoffs, anything can happen, and it often does.
“It doesn’t matter how many goals you scored and how many you gave up (in the regular season),” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “It doesn’t matter how many points you had. It’s playoff hockey now, and you have to start from scratch. (Notre Dame) is no longer in last place. The only thing they have is a chance to salvage their season. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We have everything to lose.”
To play the type of winning hockey that Berenson has emphasized all year, Nystrom knows that any and all improvements the Wolverines make will have to start on the defensive end.
“I think we can play better defensively and limit the chances (Notre Dame) gets,” Nystrom said. “We definitely have the offensive firepower to score goals. Everybody knows that. It’s us giving up goals that’s a problem. We really need to crack down defensively. (Goalie) Al (Montoya) needs to play well, our defense needs to play well, and our forwards need to come back and give our defense support. It’s going to be a collective team defensive effort.”
Michigan and Notre Dame had plenty of chances to become familiar with each other over the course of the regular season. The Wolverines swept an early-December home-and-home series with 6-1 and 8-0 wins. Just three weeks ago, Michigan racked up an impressive 9-2 win on neutral ice in Fort Wayne, Ind. before returning to Ann Arbor for a more evenly played 6-3 victory over the Irish the following night. With so many head-to-head matchups under each squad’s belt, the teams will be hard-pressed to create surprises or throw new wrinkles into game plans for a competitive edge.
“(Notre Dame) knows exactly what we do — how we like to (play) on our power play, penalty killing, how we forecheck,” senior forward Milan Gajic said. “But then, it’s playoff time. When you get to the playoffs, everyone seizes up. It gets pretty tight. You have to pull some things out of your hat, and it won’t be any different this week.”
Nystrom is confident that Michigan has plenty of players on its roster who are capable of rising to the occasion in the postseason. He also recognizes that playoff heroes can be unexpected contributors whose regular-season performances may have gone unnoticed.
“Whether you had your best season or your worst season, it doesn’t matter, because you could be the difference-maker in the playoffs,” Nystrom said. “It could be anybody any different night. It’s amazing how some guys just thrive on playing in the big games, and I think we have some guys here who can really step up and play great hockey.”
Regardless of the weekend’s outcome, one thing remains clear: The upcoming games will be Michigan’s toughest tests of the season to this point. The team recognizes that, from here on out, every game is a must-win.
“(Regular season) games don’t mean anything now,” Berenson said. “They’re really like exhibition games compared to the games that count now.”