The No. 4 ranked Michigan Wolverines (28-9-1) — much like the late 1980s Pistons overcoming the Boston Celtics — have finally shaken the leprechaun from their backs and beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (27-11) in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, 2-1.
In the beginning, it felt like more of the same between Notre Dame and Michigan: the Wolverines would generate constant pressure and opportunities, but come away with nothing. Even with a 5-on-3 advantage, the Wolverines could not generate a goal.
Contrarily, the Irish would generate high quality chances on minimal opportunities and the feeling of, “Here we go again,” began to set in after a scoreless first period.
In the second, Michigan finally opened up the scoring and found the back of the net at the 3:46 mark of the second period. Kent Johnson led a break down the middle, fed Matty Beniers on the right of the net, who then passed to Brendan Brisson on the far side. Now, this is where Irish goaltender Matthew Galajda and everyone at Yost thought Brisson would shoot.
But no, Brisson threads a beautiful touch pass back across to Beneirs at the last second, slamming it home on the doorstep, 1-0 Michigan.
With the lead, the Wolverines began to hammer down attack with a flurry of breaks and opportunities, but much like the first period they had nothing to show for it on the scoreboard.
And again, it was Notre Dame making due with little opportunity when Irish forward Jack Adams (who may or may not have began his collegiate career during the Teapot Dome Scandal) fired home a bang-bang equalizer at the 12:04 mark of the second. Tie game.
The rest of the period, it was all Notre Dame. The Irish were in complete control and put 12 of its 20 total shots on net in the second frame. Notre Dame applied constant pressure on Michigan goalie Erik Portillo and it felt like the flood gates were about to open for the Irish.
The Children of Yost had When the Levee Breaks on repeat in their minds with Johnny Cash’s Hurt awaiting in the que.
But Portillo had other plans. The Super Swede rose to the occasion and shut the Irish out the remainder of the period to keep Michigan in the game.
In the third, the Wolverines strung together one of their most complete periods of the season. Michigan dominated puck possession, face offs and played almost the entire period in the Notre Dame end.
At 3:59, Brisson rocketed home a wrister over the stick-side shoulder of Galajda to put the Wolverines back ahead. It was Brisson’s first goal since returning from the Olympics and would go on to count for his sixth game-winner of the season. 2-1, Wolverines.
Notre Dame never mounted much of a fight in the final frame and only managed four shots, just like the first period. The Irish had a brief moment on a four-on-four, but nothing came from it.
Quick tangent in regards to this four-on-four: Notre Dame defenseman Adam Karashik cross-checks Michigan forward Matty Beniers. This is bad and was called as a penalty. But, Beniers also gets a penalty for embellishment. HUH?! This is dumb, gratuitous and felt like it was only called so Michigan would have at least one penalty called against it during the game. Imagine Cade Cunningham getting elbowed in the face, but also receiving a foul for getting hit too hard.
The Wolverines out-shot Notre Dame (31-20) and held a face off advantage (33-21). While several players won’t jump off the stat sheet, it is important to note the contributions of a trio of defensemen: Johnny Beecher, Luke Hughes and Owen Power, and a pair of forwards: Dylan Duke and Thomas Bordeleau.
Beecher set the physical tone, while Hughes and Power were stout on defense and creative on offense. Duke was an absolute nightmare on the forecheck, constantly applying pressure and grinding down the Notre Dame defense. And Bordy was Bordy, as he created opportunities through penetration and won 10-of-18 face offs.
Given the pressure and significance of this game, however, no star was bigger on Saturday than Portillo, who turned in his best performance of the season. He was dominant in securing win No. 28 and stopped 19-of-20 shots. While the Wolverines dominated most of the game, it was Portillo who continually came up with big saves, especially in the second period when Michigan needed him the most.
The stars were stars for Michigan, but most importantly the team was the team and played cohesively throughout.
For the Wolverines, this win is more than a win. This win represents exorcising persistent demons that have lingered beyond this season. The Irish had won eight of the last 10 against Michigan and seven in a row at Yost. Not any more; the Leprechaun has been shaken off.
Michigan has now beaten every Big Ten opponent at least once and will have an opportunity to claim its first Big Ten Tournament Championship since 2015-16.
The Big Ten regular season champion and second-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers await Michigan in Minneapolis after narrowly defeating Penn State 3-2.
Michigan and Minnesota split the season series 2-2 and will face off in a seasonal rubber match with the Big Ten Conference Tournament Championship on the line next Saturday night.