Ohio State never had a chance.
OK maybe that’s revisionist. Because the No. 9 team in the country still scored three goals and made the Michigan hockey team’s 7-3 win a little tight down the stretch on Saturday. But when the Wolverines come out like they did in the first period — three goals, zero penalties, eight blocked shots — they can hang with anyone in the country.
But they can’t leave any margin for error.
Which is asking a lot for a team whose top nine scorers are either freshman or sophomores. They’re young, and they show it sometimes, but for nearly a full 60 minutes Saturday they played above that. All that came down to one thing:
“I think we didn’t let our foot off the gas and that was what I’m most proud of them for,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “So obviously (Ohio State is) a good team and they’re gonna make a push at times and you just have to weather the storm.”
The Wolverines didn’t just weather the storm. They harnessed it.
Putting 45 shots on goal against a team predicated on blocking shots and trapping in the neutral zone, Michigan let its offense flow all night. The only time the Wolverines gave up a goal was when Ohio State played with an extra skater, outscoring the Buckeyes 5-0 at even strength.
To get there, the Wolverines didn’t do anything special. They made crisp passes to break out of the zone. They played unselfish hockey. They converted those opportunities when they got to the net — hell, they even won two challenges.
Everything that could go right, did. Simply put, they were dominant.
Which is what this team has shown flashes of all season. October’s 9-2 thrashing of Boston University, now the fifth-ranked team in the Pairwise. January’s comeback win over Penn State. Even February’s ‘Duel in the D’ thriller against Michigan State. When Michigan needs to play well, it can.
But it’s also extremely vulnerable — and the age-old “youth” excuse gets thrown around. Look no further than its 7-2 loss to Ohio State to kick off 2023. Or how about two losses in Ohio just three weeks ago.
Here’s a spoiler: it’s not about youth.
It’s about playing every shift like it’s your last. That’s what fifth-year forward Nolan Moyle played like when he battled in the corner, taking sticks in the ribs for the mere chance of turning a puck into a goal.
It’s about making the little plays. Like when senior forward Eric Ciccolini boxed out his faceoff opponent just enough to allow freshman forward Jackson Hallum to score off the faceoff. The veteran knowledge to make that play without hesitation, on instinct alone, that’s what delivers playoff wins.
It’s about sticking to the process when things get hairy. That’s what freshman forward Adam Fantilli did, following up two shot attempts that missed high with one of the prettiest releases of the season to build a 4-1 lead. Instead of sulking when a handful of attempts turned into sour grapes, he turned those into proverbial wine.
That’s what lets you vanquish opponents that manhandled you in three of the four prior contests. And it’s the kind of play that older players excel at, spawning the youth excuse.
“I think like playoff hockey, anybody can beat anybody,” freshman forward Gavin Brindley said. “Like Wisconsin gave us great games last weekend and yeah, I just think you got to come ready to play. … It’s one game, so (in) 60 minutes anything could happen. So we got the best of ’em today.”
And if Michigan can deliver like that, there’s no reason it can’t knock off Minnesota. No reason it can’t win its regional. Nor that it can’t repeat last season’s Frozen Four appearance.
Because the Wolverines have all the pieces to make a run. They might not be the deepest team in the country. They might not even be the most skilled. But if they can play like they did for the majority of Saturday’s game, they can hang with anybody.
But if they don’t, they can also lose to anybody. Look no further than Nov. 4 in Happy Valley or Jan. 13 against the Buckeyes on the same home ice they won on Saturday night. Even last week’s series against the Big Ten’s worst team, the Badgers, came within inches of an upset.
That Michigan team is still lurking beneath the surface. But it can’t let it become them, and it has to deliver these kinds of performances night in and night out.
Because from here on out, there are no second chances.
Earegood can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ConnorEaregood