SOUTH BEND — The Michigan hockey team knew that No. 11 Notre Dame had a potent offense.
The Fighting Irish came into the weekend series boasting the CCHA’s highest scoring offense, and the Wolverines the conference’s worst defense.
This is why it wasn’t a surprise when Notre Dame (12-7-1 CCHA, 16-11-1 overall) got on the board just one minute and 16 seconds into the game as forward Anders Lee goal tallied his team-leading 15th goal of the year after a scrum in front of the net. Anders would score again, and the Fighting Irish went on to defeat the Wolverines 7-4.
“We knew that it wasn’t going to be easy, and we knew that we were going to have to play from behind,” said junior defenseman Jon Merrill. “It was a good game up until the third period when we kind of let them have it.”
With 3:58 remaining in the first period, Notre Dame got a lucky bounce off of a blocked shot that dropped right in front of the net for an easy backhand goal and a 2-0 lead. Michigan coach Red Berenson continually has talked about “puck luck” this season, and this goal was the exact opposite of that. There was nothing that the defensemen could do to stop the unfortunate bounce.
A minute later, the Wolverines (7-13-2, 10-16-2) went on their first power of the night, and Merrill rifled a slap shot from the blue line past Fighting Irish goalie Mike Johnson. Merrill, who returned to the Michigan lineup Jan. 8 after missing most of the season with a vertebrae injury, found an opportune moment to tally his first goal of the year.
The late goal not only cut the Wolverines’ two-goal deficit to a more manageable one, but also silenced the boisterous Notre Dame crowd. The score would remain 2-1, and both teams would go into the first intermission looking to build on their first-period performances.
Just as the Fighting Irish had got off to a fast start in the first period, the Wolverines did the same to start the second. Freshman forward Boo Nieves — who was coming off last weekend’s impressive five-point weekend during Michigan’s sweep of Michigan State — knocked in his eighth goal of the season just 37 seconds into the frame, knotting the game at two.
But Notre Dame didn’t let the Wolverines keep their momentum. The second period became a tale of the Michigan penalty-kill unit. The Fighting Irish tallied two power-play goals during this time, but Michigan used a shorthanded goal in between to keep the deficit at one. Freshman forward Andrew Copp broke free with sophomore forward Andrew Sinelli and tallied his first shorthanded goal of his career.
“I thought we did a nice job on the (penalty) kill,” Merrill said. “They had a couple of breaks there — caught us on a change on the one, and (scored) two seconds left on the power play. If you really look at the game, we didn’t struggle at all, it was just the circumstance.”
Though the Michigan penalty-kill unit, which had done an excellent job of controlling possession and limiting opportunities against the Spartans last weekend, notched the shorthanded goal, it also regularly failed to successfully clear the zone. This was evident as the Wolverines penalty killers gave up two goals in one period after giving up just 18 power-play goals the entire season.
Considering how poorly the defense had played during the first two periods, the Wolverines were lucky to trail by one. But that luck changed quickly.
In just 1:21, Notre Dame scored two consecutive goals to take a 6-3 lead. Despite another Michigan shorthanded goal with 8:09 remaining in the third period, the Wolverines didn’t have enough to mount a comeback. With 14.8 seconds left, the Fighting Irish tacked on an empty netter to finish off the game.
“You can’t give a team a life,” Berenson said. “Every time they get a goal, they get a life. Too many goals against; we’re back to that.”
Michigan will be back in action tomorrow night for the series finale with the Fighting Irish.