SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The returns of junior defenseman Mac Bennett to the ice and junior defenseman Jon Merrill to the goal column weren’t enough to continue the Wolverines’ first two-game win streak since October.
Michigan fell on the road Friday night to No. 11 Notre Dame, 7-4, in front of a white-out crowd at Compton Family Ice Arena.
“I thought we battled,” said Merrill. “I thought we had a few mental lapses, but that we battled really hard. That is something that I was pleased with.”
It didn’t take long — 1:16, to be exact — for the Fighting Irish to open the game’s scoring on a scrum in front of Michigan goalie Jared Rutledge. Junior captain Anders Lee batted a puck out of mid-air during one of Bennett’s first shifts back.
The Wolverines seemed to wake up following the initial Notre Dame tally, but the Fighting Irish still scored the all-important second goal with four minutes to play in the period. Michigan freshman Jacob Trouba blocked the first shot attempt, but the puck caromed off the Rochester, Mich. native and right to junior Fighting Irish forward David Gerths, who sent a backhand past Rutledge for the 2-0 advantage.
But the Wolverines would end the period by stringing together some momentum. Merrill, who had racked up three assists since returning on Jan. 8 from the injury he suffered in an exhibition game, finally added his first goal, too. With the man advantage, Merrill launched one of his signature lasers from the blue line that trickled past Notre Dame goalie Mike Johnson.
The energy carried over into the middle frame for the Wolverines. Just 37 seconds in, freshman forward Boo Nieves continued his recent tear by taking a pass from senior forward and Grosse Point, Mich. native Kevin Lynch to tie the game at two. Lynch was positioned just behind the goal line and Johnson couldn’t keep up with the pass to the crease that Nieves finished off.
Six minutes later, it was Novi, Mich. native Bryan Rust giving the lead back to the Fighting Irish on the power play. After the Wolverines killed all nine of the penalties they took against Michigan State last weekend, they failed to continue the same success into Friday night’s series opener.
But it wasn’t all bad for the Michigan penalty-kill unit. With just under four minutes to go in the second period, Ann Arbor, Mich. native Andrew Copp chose to keep the puck himself on a breakaway while flanked by sophomore forward Andrew Sinelli. The decision paid off as he chased down his own rebound to equalize.
The tally came minutes after the freshman forward contributed at the other end, carefully sliding a puck off the Michigan goal line to save a sure goal after a failed glove save by Rutledge.
But Notre Dame carried the lead into the second intermission on the strength of a power-play goal from Lee, his second tally of the evening, as the Wolverine penalty killers regressed to their mean.
In the second period, Michigan surrendered 18 shots — the most its given up in a frame this year.
Two goals in a span of 1:21 in the third period thwarted any potential Wolverine comeback bid.
“On special teams, when you add it all up we were probably even for the night,” Berenson said. “Nevertheless, you cannot give a team life. Every time they get a goal they get a life, and we gave up too many goals against.”
First, sophomore defenseman Eric Johnson scored his first-career goal for Notre Dame on a slap shot from the slot. The dagger came on Gerths’ second of the night, a breakaway that a rattled Rutledge couldn’t stay with.
The Wolverines caught another break while shorthanded later in the period when Notre Dame’s Stephen Johns gave the puck away to Michigan junior forward Derek DeBlois, who finished on the breakaway. That would be as close as Michigan would come.
“I didn’t like the outcome of the game, but I like the way that we fought back even though we gave up an early goal at the start of the game,” Berenson said.
Michigan and Notre Dame will complete their two-game set on Saturday night at 7:05 p.m. in South Bend.