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Friday, March 1, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame to meet No. 3 Michigan on the ice

Notre Dame hockey and its November gauntlet will return to Compton Family Ice Arena this weekend. The third-ranked Michigan Wolverines, the reigning Big Ten champions, await. The Irish have taken eight of the last ten regular-season meetings with the Wolverines, but Michigan defeated Notre Dame in last season’s conference semifinals. 

This will be a crucial early-season series for the Irish, who check in at 4-4-2 and 1-2-1 in Big Ten play. They slipped six spots to No. 18 in the USCHO poll after a lopsided sweep at the hands of top-ranked Minnesota. The Golden Gophers dished out 4-1 and 3-0 defeats, outshooting Notre Dame 85-46 in the process. To make matters worse, the Irish totaled 29 penalty minutes across the two games, putting themselves behind the eight ball repeatedly against an elite opponent.

High-scoring Michigan offense poses challenge

Offensive consistency and man-down situations have been Notre Dame’s primary issues through the opening month, and both have contributed heavily to the team’s active three-game winless streak. Junior Ryder Rolston continues to lead the Irish in goals (4) and points (9), but he was stymied over the weekend. On the other hand, senior goaltender Ryan Bischel was a bright spot, making 45 saves on Friday night and lifting his season save percentage to an impressive .932.

The Wolverines, coached by Michigan alum Brandon Naurato, have scored their way to an 8-2-0 record. Michigan has potted five or more goals in six games already, including a 9-2 rout of No. 14 Boston University on October 14. They also notched back-to-back five-goal efforts against No. 17 Western Michigan two weekends ago. The offense has cooled off a bit recently, posting less than 30 shots on goal in three straight games.

Last weekend, Michigan earned a split with No. 8 Penn State, falling 3-0 on Friday but prevailing 4-3 in overtime on Saturday. The Wolverines coughed up a three-goal third-period lead in game two, but freshman forward Adam Fantilli delivered the game-winner. While Notre Dame’s penalty killers have scuffled early on, Michigan’s power play has shined. The Wolverines have converted on 31% of their man advantage opportunities, cranking out as many as five power-play goals in a game this year.

Youth, star power lead Michigan offense

Michigan hockey is young but extremely skilled. As of last Friday, eight of their top nine forwards were freshmen or sophomores, even with star freshman forward Frank Nazar out of the lineup. The 13th overall pick of the Blackhawks could miss the remainder of the season due to a lower-body injury. Michigan’s crown jewel is Adam Fantilli, who is projected to be among the first three selected in next year’s draft. Fantilli made his collegiate debut before turning 17, yet he is setting the ice on fire for the Wolverines. After posting 74 points in 54 games for the USHL’s Chicago Steel last season, he leads college hockey with 20 points (9 goals, 11 assists) in 10 games. On Michigan’s top line, he is flanked by sophomores Dylan Duke and Mackie Samoskevich, who have posted a combined 25 points to open the year. 

NHL draft picks anchor Wolverine defense

On the back end, each of the Wolverines’ top four defensemen is an NHL draft pick. They are anchored by the pairing of junior Jacob Truscott and sophomore Luke Hughes, the New Jersey Devils’ 4th overall pick in last year’s entry draft. Junior goaltender Erik Portillo made the season’s first eight starts, posting a 7-1 record with a .905 save percentage. Fellow junior Noah West covered both starts against Penn State, however, stopping 78 out of 83 shots in the series split.

With Notre Dame football in Baltimore for the weekend, this top-20 matchup will play out in the traditional Friday-Saturday format. Game one will drop the puck at 7:30 p.m., while game two will commence at 6 p.m. Following the series, Michigan will return home to end November against No. 1 Minnesota and No. 13 Harvard.

Meanwhile, the Irish will not play another home game until Dec. 9, traveling to Ohio State, Boston University and Boston College to wrap up the month. Notre Dame and Michigan will meet again in Ann Arbor to close the regular season on Feb. 24 and 25.