Entering Friday night’s matchup with No. 6 Penn State, the No. 7 Michigan hockey team (15-9-1, 7-8) had a trend that it needed to buck.
Since late October, the Wolverines had fallen into an imperfect rhythm, in each series doing the exact same thing. They’d come out slow, emerge winless in the first game, then turn it around to win the second.
On Friday, just a month from the postseason and playing with a major opportunity to pick up ground, Michigan needed to reverse that trend.
With a resounding 7-3 win over the Nittany Lions (18-8-1 overall, 8-9 Big Ten) on the strength of a crafty offensive effort, the Wolverines (15-9-1, 7-8) gave themselves a chance to build momentum at a critical juncture. But in a strange twist, they were doubled in shots, and spent much of the game hemmed in their end.
“We gave them their chances, and we played like we play every Friday night just we won,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “So, (I’m) still trying to figure it out.”
From early on, Penn State’s offensive strategy was clear. The Nittany Lions pushed the puck wide, played the corners and fired any and all possible shots at the net. But it was Michigan that struck first. Five minutes in, freshman defenseman Seamus Casey swung low, faked right and pivoted left toward the net. He then whipped the puck into the slot where it landed on the stick of freshman forward Jackson Hallum who fired it into the back of the net.
Hallum’s goal was indicative of the Wolverines’ offensive play, a mixture of speed and just getting to the front of the net. Three minutes later, the process worked again on the powerplay as sophomore defenseman Luke Hughes fed the puck to freshman forward Adam Fantilli in the slot, where he ripped it home.
But despite entering the second period up 2-0, the Wolverines still hadn’t figured out how to contain Penn State’s offense. The Nittany Lions had already managed 17 shots, significant zone time and several high danger chances. They were getting to their gameplan, just not scoring.
“They throw a lot of pucks at the net, they high flip, they always have a lot of shots,” Naurato said. “High danger chances is what I’d probably be worried about, and they probably had a lot of them.”
Early in the second period, when an ugly hit from senior defenseman Jay Keranen resulted in a five minute major and a game misconduct, Michigan faltered for the first time. Penn State forward Xander Lamppa slotted a puck in right off of the ensuing faceoff to make the score 2-1. The Wolverines then killed the remainder of the penalty, and came out of it swarming. Diving for pucks and consistently knocking on Penn State’s doorstep with chances.
Midway through the period, they got two responses in rapid succession. Casey again danced around the offensive zone and fed freshman forward Rutger McGroarty, then just a minute later Fantilli slid a puck to Gavin Brindley in the same position. Neither McGroarty, nor Brindley missed, adding two goals.
But the Nittany Lions bounced back quickly though as Lamppa tapped one in minutes later on a miscue from Adam Fantilli, who left the puck unattended on the right post, and it soon reflected on the scoreboard.
Coming out of the locker room tied 4-2, the Nittany Lions started to press. Like it had all game, Penn State threw the kitchen sink at junior Goalie Erik Portillo, but none of it worked. Michigan didn’t have a response, but was routinely bailed out by Portillo, who stopped a career high 51 shots, the most for a Wolverines goalie since 2014.
The Nittany Lions offense was relentless, but Michigan’s was opportune.
“I think, guys just made plays, like pucks bounced to them and went in,” Naurato said. “I don’t want to say we got the bounces or didn’t get the bounces, but they just went in at the right times.”
With two minutes left and their net empty, Penn State spent minutes in Michigan’s end, firing shot after shot at Portillo. But the puck popped out, and Fantilli stormed up the ice to take advantage.
Then, the last two minutes devolved into chaos. Luke Hughes added another full ice empty netter after. Penn State then scored an even strength goal with 40 seconds to go and finally Michigan’s Luca Fantilli notched his first career goal to settle the score at 7-3.
The Wolverines needed a win to keep the chance of a series sweep alive and they got it because their offense was crafty and opportune — not because they played a perfect game.
“We need to be better,” a somber McGroarty said postgame. “That wasn’t good enough, I think we gave up like (54) shots or something. That’s just not good enough.”