Michigan's emotional control on the ice improved against Michigan State. Dominick Sokotoff/Daily. Buy this photo.

It was a hit that could’ve impacted Michigan’s whole season.

Michigan State defenseman Christian Krygier slew footed Dylan Duke behind the net, making dangerous contact with the freshman forward’s head and the boards. As Duke laid on the ice in pain, previous games suggested that things would get ugly — and fast.

But instead of sticking up for their teammate with gloved fists and crosschecks, the Wolverines responded without violence, instead exploding on the ensuing power play. While the response marks a significant growth in the No. 4 Michigan hockey team’s mentality, there’s still room for its poise to improve.

“It’s emotional and if someone keeps poking you in the chest, sooner or later you want to poke him back, I get it,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “But we have to be mentally tough and to be mentally tough. … It’s a work in progress, but we’ve made good strides.”

And those strides have come quickly. Just a month ago, Duke’s linemates fought like dogs to protect each other after questionable plays. In an exhibition game against the U.S. National Team Development Program, junior forward Johnny Beecher engaged in a skirmish with Devin Kaplan. Facing a teenager just under three years his junior, Beecher’s uncontrolled temper put him in the penalty box.

But against the Spartans, Michigan chose to punch the score button. Already up 5-0, the Wolverines potted three goals during Krygier’s five-minute penalty.

Still, that instance is only an exception to the Wolverines’ habits. Michigan’s second line of freshman forward Mark Estapa and sophomore forwards Brendan Brisson and Thomas Bordeleau have accrued 106 penalty minutes this season, often because they fight for each other when opponents cross the line. The fourth line of senior forwards Jimmy Lambert, Garrett Van Wyhe and Nolan Moyle have racked up 128 penalty minutes much the same way. All told, Michigan leads the country in penalty minutes with 555, 20 more than second-place Bowling Green.

At this point in the season, holding their tongues — and especially their fists — is essential. 

“I’ve been doing this a lot longer than these guys have,” Pearson said. “So I’ve seen crazy things happen when you take some bad penalties.”

Losing their control could give the Wolverines more than just penalties. Ten skaters for Michigan have a game misconduct penalty so far this season. If any of those players reach three major ejections, they will automatically face suspension in the next NCAA game.

Given how the Wolverines have defended each other in the past, that’s never off the table.

Mixing it up on the ice happens in college hockey, and misconduct penalties — whether 10 minutes or a game ejection — help keep the game in control. Even after Friday’s game that saw four 10-minute misconduct ejections, both teams’ coaches said they didn’t mind the calls.

“It’s a little skirmish at the end, boys will be boys,” Michigan State coach Danton Cole said after the game. “I didn’t see anything that was out of control. I think the refs handled that very well.”

But, officials reclaiming control might soon take a much-needed player out of the lineup, and the Wolverines obviously don’t want that to happen.

Against a tournament-bound team in Notre Dame — while working with a full roster — Michigan couldn’t pull out a win in four tries during the regular season. The Wolverines get a chance to prove their growth against the Irish in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals on Saturday. Despite all their depth, they can’t afford to play tough teams without a full roster.

Displaying control against the Spartans marks the kind of long-term thinking that the Wolverines must use if they want to keep playing. Their season goals are much bigger than opponents like Michigan State, and they showed that understanding by not retaliating on Krygier.

“Just win the game,” Pearson said. “Then you’ll feel so much better at the end than trying to get even with someone.”

When the next Michigan player inevitably gets boarded, cross checked or chirped, the Wolverines must keep their poise.

If they don’t, their season might end with a skate to the penalty box.