Six minutes into the third period Saturday, the Michigan hockey team once again found itself trailing Wisconsin on home ice.
Junior center JT Compher received the puck at the Wolverines’ offensive blue line and carried it toward goal. He burst to the net from the right side of the ice, beat Wisconsin defender Eddie Wittchow to the crease and dragged the puck to his backhand before lighting the lamp to equalize the game at five.
Michigan’s captain made a beeline for the left side of the rink and threw himself into the boards, leaving just a layer of plexiglass between him and the Children of Yost, who had erupted into pandemonium — injecting a newfound energy into everyone that surrounded him.
“That’s JT. That’s his DNA,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “He’s a fiery player. He’s an intense competitor. He’s a leader. He knows that if this team is going to go, he’s got to be a big part of it. He showed that again tonight.”
Added Compher: “I think any hockey player wants the puck on your stick when your team is down. But we had some really big performances by a lot of guys.”
One of those guys was junior forward Tyler Motte.
Motte’s biggest moment came 3:22 into the third period of Friday’s matchup, as the two teams were locked at four after a seven-goal second period.
After the Wisconsin defense mishandled a puck in the air, Motte made them pay, finishing the opportunity on the goaltender’s glove-hand side to give Michigan its first lead of the game.
“He blocked big shots. He kills penalties,” Berenson said Friday. “He’s playing like an MVP player, and he should. He’s a junior, and he knows he’s got a big role on this team. He’s earning it.”
Those were just two of the momentum-swinging plays that Compher and Motte made this weekend. The duo willed the Wolverines to a five-point, Big Ten-opening series against the Badgers (0-1-1 Big Ten, 3-6-5 overall).
Things were supposed to be easier for Michigan (1-0-0-1, 8-2-3) in its two-game stint against a Wisconsin team that was struggling to start the season. Instead, the Wolverines found themselves needing two comeback efforts in high-scoring affairs.
The Badgers put Michigan on its heels on Friday, burying three goals into the Wolverines’ net in the game’s first 26 minutes. Wisconsin held a 4-2 advantage halfway through the same frame.
Even when Michigan flipped the script Saturday, with two goals in the first five minutes, the Badgers responded and claimed a 5-3 lead entering the third period.
At times when the Big Ten opening weekend seemed like it would be a sour one, Compher and Motte snatched hope from the jaws of defeat. Behind their efforts, the Wolverines claimed a 6-4 victory Friday and a 7-6 shootout win Saturday — which will go down as a tie in the NCAA Pairwise rankings.
Throughout the weekend, goals weren’t the only contribution that Motte and Compher made. The two looked threatening every time they had the puck and were the engines behind a Wolverine squad that looked deflated at times.
“(Motte) and JT led the comeback. Let’s face it,” Berenson said. “It was all JT and Tyler, and good for them. Then our team started to catch fire.”
And before every fire comes a spark — a role the two upperclassmen were more than willing to play this weekend.
After a sluggish start Friday, Compher set the tone from the opening faceoff Saturday.
As the two teams lined up for the first puck drop, the junior got into a small scrum at center ice before the puck even dropped — sending the message that the Wolverines would refuse to suffer the same early fate as they did in the series opener.
Motte fought hard all weekend as well, and standing at 12 points this season, already has more than a third of his total from last year’s campaign.
The pair combined for six points this weekend: two goals that trimmed the Badgers’ lead to one, a tying goal and a go-ahead goal. Motte and Compher were clearly in sync, as both of their assists went to each other.
The results of the weekend weren’t perfect — the Wolverines surrendered 10 goals, yet still managed to earn five points — but Motte and Compher showed that, for now, there is no task too daunting for Michigan to overcome.