Michigan Olympians end Big Ten hopes of Irish, who now await NCAA bid

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The sign attached to the plexiglass behind the Notre Dame bench by students from Michigan certainly missed its mark.

“The Whiny Irish?” Far from it. The Wolverine student body, of course, conveniently forgot the results of the first four meetings between the two Big Ten hockey powerhouses – four Irish victories, three of them on comebacks.

Saturday night, though, coach Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish did not, and it took goal-scoring from Team USA Olympians Matty Beniers and Brendan Brisson to do in another valiant effort by No. 8 Notre Dame for a 2-1 victory by No. 4 Michigan before a capacity crowd of 5,800 at the Yost Ice Arena.

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Brisson, who assisted on Beniers’ goal early in the second period, switched roles with his teammate, receiving a pass from Beniers and beating Notre Dame grad-transfer (Cornell) goalie Matthew Galajda from 30 feet with 3:59 gone in the third period. The winning goal sends Mel Pearson’s team (28-9-1) into the Big Ten Tournament championship game next Saturday again first-seed Minnesota, the regular-season champion.

Grad-transfer (from Union and Providence) Jack Adams, a 6-foot-6 right wing, answered Beniers’ goal at 3:46 of the second period with one of his own at 12:04 of the period. But the Irish couldn’t mount sustained pressure on 6-foot-6 Michigan goaltender Erik Portillo of Sweden, who finished with 19 saves while earning his first victory over Notre Dame after four losses. Galajda had another strong night in net for Notre Dame, turning away 29 other shots against a team full of first-round NHL draft choices (seven), four of whom who played in the recent Winter Games in Beijing, China.

“I thought we battled, we played hard and put ourselves in position to win the game,” Jackson said. “Their top guys made the difference. They scored the key goal in the third period. That’s what it came down to – their top guys made the difference.”

Michigan carried the game to Notre Dame from the start, outshooting the Irish 9-4 in a scoreless first period before the teams each had 12 in the second period. Michigan then outshot Notre Dame 10-4 in the final period for the 31-20 edge. The Wolverines also won the faceoff battle – normally an Irish strength – by a 33-21 commanding margin.

Notre Dame did win one statistic – blocked shots by a 26-7 count. But even that wide margin is testimony to Michigan’s deep and talented bench – and Notre Dame’s toughness. Defenseman Spencer Stastney blocked five shots, and forwards Graham Slaggert and Trevor Janicke four each to help out Galajda, who was doing a pretty good job on his own in his eighth straight start. He’s 6-2 in those games.

“You’ve got to get good goaltending at this time of the year,” Jackson said, “and Matt has played well the last month.”

Notre Dame returns home to get healthy and await its NCAA fate on Selection Sunday on March 20.

“We need it (rest),” Jackson said. “We’ve had guys sick, including me, coming off last weekend (a 2-1 victory in the best-of-3 series with Wisconsin). We’d probably benefit having an extra week before the NCAA tournament.”

Each team had four shots at the media break which came at 12:30 before four of Michigan’s first-round NHL draft choices started pressuring Galajda.

Things got serious in the final four minutes when Galajda first stopped a shot by Johnny Beecher at 16:25. Ten seconds later, defenseman Adam Karashik went off for interference, and 26 seconds later, teammate Jake Pivonka joined him in the penalty box, giving the Wolverines a 5-on-3 advantage for one minute and 34 seconds.

But the Irish managed to get the job done as Galajda made three saves on Luke Hughes (17:36), Brendan Brisson (18:29) and Kent Johnson from the slot one second before Karashik returned at 18:35.

Then Brisson hit the pipe at 18:39 before another one of his shots was blocked by Irish defenseman Nick Leivermann. Fourteen seconds later, the Irish were back to full strength and the period ended scoreless. Galajda had nine saves and Portillo made four, all in the first 12:10. 

The Irish started slowly in the second period and paid for it when Beniers scored his 19th of the season off feeds from Brisson and Johnson at 3:46. But Galajda kept making saves while his teammates got untracked.

Michigan had a 17-9 edge at the media timeout in the second period but then the 6-foot-6 Adams beat Portillo on a scramble in front at 12:04 with Karashik and Justin Janicke assisting for his sixth goal of the season. At one point, the Irish outshot the Wolverines 6-2 in a six-minute stretch, but it remained 1-1 after two periods with Michigan having a 21-16 edge in shots.

MICHIGAN 2, NOTRE DAME 1

At Red Berenson Rink in Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Notre Dame | 0 | 1 | 0—1

Michigan | 0 | 1 | 1—2

First Period—Scoring: None. Penalties: Notre Dame 2-4, Michigan 0-0.

Second Period—Scoring: 1. Michigan, Matty Beniers 19 (Brendan Brisson, Kent Johnson) EV 3:46. 2. Notre Dame, Jack Adams 6 (Adam Karashik, Justin Janicke) EV 12:04. Penalties (total): Notre Dame 0-0 (2-4), Michigan 0-0 (0-0).

Third Period—Scoring: 3. Michigan, Brendan Brisson 18 (Matty Beniers, Jacob Truscott) EV 3:59. Penalties (total): Notre Dame 1-2 (3-6), Michigan 1-2 (1-2).

Shots on goal: Notre Dame 16 (4-12-0-0), Michigan 21 (9-12-0-0).

Goalie saves: Notre Dame, Matthew Galajda 29 (9-11-9); Michigan, Erik Portillo 19 (4-11-4).

Power-play opportunities: Notre Dame 0 of 0, Michigan 0 of 2.

Faceoffs won: Notre Dame 21 (5-8-8), Michigan 33 (8-15-10).

Blocked shots: Notre Dame 26 (11-5-10), Michigan 7 (1-5-1).

Referees: Barry Pochmara and Sean Fernandez.

Linesmen: Justin Cornell and Pat Richardson.

Attendance: 5,800 (5,800).

Records: Notre Dame 27-11, Michigan 28-9-1.

BIG TEN POSTSEASON TOURNAMENT

SEMIFINALS / Single-game elimination

Saturday, March 12

(3) Notre Dame (27-10-0) at (2) Michigan (27-9-1), 6:30 p.m. (BTN)

(5) Penn State (17-19-1) at (1) Minnesota (23-11-0), 9 p.m. (BTN)

CHAMPIONSHIP / Single-game elimination

Saturday, March 19

(2) Michigan (28-9-1) vs. (5) Penn State / (1) Minnesota winner, TBD (BTN)