The second-ranked Michigan Wolverines (25-7-1) travel to South Bend, Indiana, for the season finale series against No. 8/9 Notre Dame (23-9) with the fate of the Big Ten regular season crown hanging in the balance.
Michigan is two points ahead of Minnesota, who plays Wisconsin this weekend. Regardless of how the Golden Gophers perform, the Wolverines need only four points across the two games to secure the Big Ten title and the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
If this alone wasn’t enough motivation, Notre Dame is the only Big Ten opponent Michigan has not beaten this season. The Fighting Irish took both games at Yost — albeit both in OT — back in November. Since losing those two games just before Thanksgiving, the Wolverines have only lost three times since, compiling a record of 15-3-1.
Michigan is on its best stretch of the season having won 11 of the last 12, including seven in a row. Even when four of their best players departed for the Olympics, the Wolverines did not miss a beat as several other players stepped up in their absence.
Michigan defenseman Luke Hughes (16 goals, 16 assists) leads all defensemen nationally with 16 goals on the season and has earned the Big Ten First Star in back-to-back weeks. Moreover, Hughes now holds the single-season freshman goals record by a U-M defensemen with two games remaining.
Sophomore Thomas Bordeleau has 10 points in his last 12 games and 28 points overall on the season. While his consistency is impressive, Bordy’s 58% win-rate in faceoffs is one of the highest in the country. He has a 100% win-rate when it comes to pre-game fits.
Team captain Nick Blankenburg has added 12 goals of his own this season, but most importantly leads the team with 38 blocked shots. Michigan is fortunate to have a captain like Blankenburg willing to go to the ice that frequently and do the dirty work.
Lastly, in the net, Erik Portillo continues to show why he is one of the best in the country. After a below-average performance last Friday against Ohio State, he came back on Saturday with a 30-save shutout. Portillo remains second in the country in wins (25) and saves (882).
While all four of those players have been terrific of late, and for most of the season for that matter, the four Wolverines commanding the most attention this weekend will be the four players returning from the Olympics: Matty Beniers, Owen Power, Kent Johnson and Brendan Brisson.
Despite his Olympic absence, Beniers still leads the team in points (16 goals, 22 assists) and Brisson (17 goals, 15 assists) is now tied for second in team points with Hughes.
Team assist leader Johnson (6 goals, 24 assists) returns to reaffirm the first line-center position and Power (3 goals, 23 assists) most importantly returns to anchor the blue line, which has been the greatest area of concern for the Wolverines since his Olympic departure.
However, do not expect Notre Dame to be intimidated at all by their return because a full-strength Michigan team is exactly who the Irish swept back in November.
The Fighting Irish are paced by transfer forward Max Ellis (16 goals, 12 assists), who has put a prolific 124 shots on goal this season. On the blue line, Spencer Stastney leads the team with 18 assists and Adam Karashik leads the team with an absurd 72 blocked shots.
In net, the Fighting Irish rely on the duo of Ryan Bischel and Matthew Galajda, with the latter sporting a .927 save percentage 2.02 goals against average.
Notre Dame’s bread and butter is defense: the Fighting Irish are No. 2 in the country in penalty-kill percentage (.915) and No. 7 in scoring defense (2.16 goals per game). Expect Notre Dame to make these games ugly and to try and exploit any potential chemistry issues with the four Wolverines returning.
Can the Wolverines win the Big Ten regular season and clinch the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament? We’ll find out soon enough.
How to watch
Friday, Feb. 25 — at Notre Dame (South Bend, Ind.), 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 26 — at Notre Dame (South Bend, Ind.), 6:00 p.m.