There were 46 seconds left on the clock. Michigan led, 4-3, but Lake Superior State was pressuring after pulling its goaltender for an extra attacker. If the Wolverines could get the puck cleared out of their zone, it would likely seal a sweep over the Lakers.
In that high-pressure situation, where a faceoff win could mean the difference between victory and defeat, Michigan coach Mel Pearson had a decision to make.
Seconds later, 6-foot-3 freshman forward Johnny Beecher glided into the faceoff circle to take the draw against 6-foot-6 forward Hampus Eriksson. As the referee dropped the puck, Beecher beat Eriksson to the puck, twisting as he sent it back between his legs to senior defenseman Luke Martin, who waited in the corner.
Martin brought the puck up toward the blueline, looking to get the clear or put the puck in the empty net, but forward Ashton Calder was waiting to keep it in the zone for his team and his play created two scoring chances for Lake Superior State. After a flurry of activity in front of the net, sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann covered the puck, which meant another faceoff was coming.
This time, there were just nine seconds left. Once again, Pearson gave Beecher the nod. Once again, Beecher won the draw.
“You just kinda have to dial it in and focus on the draw,” Beecher said after the game. “Obviously, there’s a lot on the line with a one-goal lead, but I’m extremely happy that coach has that much faith in me and my teammates as well. I just wanted to go out there and try to win the draw for them.”
The second time, Beecher beat Calder off the drop and sent the puck out and around the corner, where sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg chased it down. Blankenburg’s pass around the boards came up to senior forward Will Lockwood at the point, who ensured a game-winning clear for the Wolverines.
“(Beecher) was really good, we tried him there and he’s been excellent,” Pearson said after the game. “Two big important faceoffs, and we win them. But we got to make sure we get those out though, especially the first one. But got a lot of confidence in Johnny in his faceoff ability.”
Just four games into his Michigan career, Beecher’s earned Pearson’s full confidence to win crucial draws at key moments of the game — and Beecher’s 16-of-20 record on draws throughout Saturday’s game exemplifies why Pearson trusts him implicitly.
But he didn’t always expect to be turning to Beecher this early in his career. Earlier in October, Pearson told MIHockey.com that he thought it would take Beecher time to adjust to college hockey.
In his two years at the U.S. National Team Development Program, Beecher was somewhat buried on the line chart behind future top-five picks Jack Hughes and Alex Turcotte. His role wasn’t to be the go-to scorer — Hughes and Turcotte and their linemates were there for that. At Michigan, Beecher’s role is expanding, and Pearson thought it would be a month or two before Beecher — the No. 30 overall pick to the Boston Bruins in the 2019 NHL Draft — fully adjusted.
But with three points in his first four games, it’s clear that Beecher is settling in faster than anyone expected.
“He’s got a quick learning curve,” Pearson said Monday. “He’s picked a lot of things up. … His practice habits have gotten better. I think that’s the biggest area we’ve seen and then that’s flown into — just flow right into the game with his preparation and whatnot.
“Practice, it took him a while to get going, and now he’s practicing better. He sees the importance of it and understands, and that’s part of the learning curve, too.”
And Beecher’s teammates can also see and appreciate how quickly he’s adjusted to the pace and style of play in college hockey.
“I don’t think it really took much,” Lockwood said. “I think he kinda jumped right in and has been great. He really uses his speed well. In practice, he wasn’t always utilizing that, but in games, he was blowing by guys. I think the first couple games he was a bounce or two away from having three, four breakaways and then this past weekend, I think he did have three or four breakaways.
“He’s been able to jump and do really well.”