The No. 4 ranked Michigan Wolverines (27-9-1) are scheduled to face a familiar opponent in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament and the only conference opponent whom they have not beaten this season: Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish (27-10) are ranked eighth nationally and are coming off a come-from-behind series victory against the Wisconsin Badgers in the quarterfinals. While Notre Dame struggled against an inferior Wisconsin squad last week, its confidence will not be lacking entering tonight’s game.
Notre Dame is 8-2 in its last 10 games against Michigan and has won seven straight games at Yost Arena. The Irish are the only team to sweep the Wolverines in a singular series this year, and they have done so twice.
The Irish play a defensive, counter style of hockey that relies upon starting fast, an opportunistic offense and strong goaltending.
Notre Dame is 19-1 when scoring first this season because like a prize fighter playing the long game, the Irish shell up and play defense when they acquire a lead. Once an opponent is frustrated by these tactics, they become more prone to forced mistakes and allow the Irish to capitalize with timely knockout blows in the second and third periods.
Defenseman Nick Leivermann is the orchestrator of this opportunistic attack and is currently riding a six-game point streak. Behind Leiverman is netminder and Wolverine silencer Matthew Galajda.
Galajda has started each of the past eight games for the Irish en route to a 7-1 record and a smothering .944 save percentage. Furthermore, in the most recent series against Michigan, Galajda posted a .967 (!!!) save percentage and stopped 59-of-61 shots.
So how do the Wolverines change the narrative and shake this leprechaun from their back? It’s time to lean into the teachings of Cobra Kai: Strike first, strike hard, no mercy.
In three of the four meetings against Notre Dame, Michigan has accomplished the first part of this karate tenet and scored first. Actually, the Wolverines have even held two separate two-goal advantages in two of these four games before ultimately losing both in overtime.
But what has cost the Wolverines has been two-fold:
- Offense: Inconsistent efforts of complacency and hurried offensive execution
- Defense: Second chances and miscues
To correct this offensively, the Wolverines have to play within themselves with a sustained pace and patience. Do not overextend on the forecheck and allow man advantages the other way. This point goes doubly for freshman sensation Luke Hughes, who can get too starry-eyed and forget his defensive responsibilities along the blue line.
Without a power play or sloppy offensive execution from the Wolverines, Notre Dame will struggle with possession and scoring the puck.
Defensively, goalie Erik Portillo must eliminate rebounds and second chance opportunities. The Super Swede is nearly impossible to beat on the first shot, but the Irish were able to repeatedly clean up the trash around the net in the last two meetings.
As a whole, the Wolverines need their stars to be stars again. The four Olympians (Matty Beneirs, Brendan Brisson, Owen Power, Kent Johnson) were just regaining their footing from international play when they lost to Notre Dame in February.
With four games under their belt now and a shot to advance to the Big Ten Championship in a revenge game, there are no excuses.
In the most important game of the season, it’s time to sweep the leg.
Around the Big Ten
Big Ten Tournament Semifinal #2: No. 1 Minnesota vs. No. 5 Penn State
The Wolverines swept the season series 4-0 against the Nittany Lions and split the season series 2-2 against the Big Ten Regular Season Champion Golden Gophers.
How to watch
Saturday (3/12): 6:30 p.m., Yost Ice Arena
Watch: Big Ten Network