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Hockey splits series against Wisconsin in return to the ice

The Wolverines hadn’t played since late January

COLLEGE HOCKEY: NOV 24 Wisconsin at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Michigan hockey split its first series in over three weeks, a layoff that was due to the University-wide athletics COVID pause. On Saturday, the Wolverines exploded for four goals in the second period en route to a 5-1 win over the Wisconsin Badgers. On Sunday, Wisconsin bounced back to defeat Michigan by the score of 3-2.

There was some rust

Coming off an unexpected three-week break, one big question coming into this series was how Michigan would play. After a slow start on Saturday, the Wolverines appeared to shake off the cobwebs in the offensive zone. Michigan recorded 36 shots on Saturday, with 29 coming in the second and third periods. After a four-goal explosion in the second period, Michigan kept looking for chances to extend their lead. On Sunday, the team appeared to run out of gas. Wisconsin’s defense deserves credit for being sharper than they were on Saturday, but the Wolverines were also having a tougher go of it due to the extended layoff. Michigan will need to quickly regain the stamina to play consistently through a full series with only seven games to go before the Big Ten Tournament.

Erik Portillo continues to develop

Freshman Erik Portillo got the start in net on Saturday and he delivered a very strong performance. Portillo saved 29 of the 30 shots he faced, including the incredible stretch below to deny what would have been a sure Wisconsin goal. Portillo’s recent starts suggest that the coaching staff believes they have two number one goaltenders with him and Strauss Mann on the roster. His earlier starts could have been explained away as maintenance-related for Mann, but Portillo starting the first game of a series against a Top-10 opponent likely speaks to the coaches’ high opinion of him. As long as he keeps performing, he will probably continue to get starts. And when the job becomes his full-time next season, the team looks to be in good hands.

Michigan needs to continue winning

Before the break, the schedule appeared to be setting up well for the Wolverines to make a push into the Big Ten Tournament and post-season. Michigan was supposed to have three very winnable games against Penn State and Michigan State before facing Wisconsin. Now, the Wolverines find themselves sitting in fourth place in the conference standings and trailing the leading Minnesota Golden Gophers by 13 points and the second place Badgers by 11 points. While the conference is technically still winnable for Michigan with seven games remaining, the more important goal may be to simply keep winning to ensure the Wolverines receive an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament. With series at Ohio State and Minnesota, and against Arizona State, Michigan has a challenge ahead.

The Wolverines will be back in action at Ohio State this Friday at 5:30 p.m. The second game of the series will be played on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. TV coverage for those games has not yet been announced.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the series against Wisconsin was played in Ann Arbor. It originally stated that the series had been played at Wisconsin.