DETROIT — On Saturday night in Detroit, in the 337th iteration of a bitter century-old rivalry, there were just 0.6 seconds separating the No. 5 Michigan and No. 15 Michigan State hockey teams from a shootout in the ‘Duel in the D.’
That is, until there weren’t.
With the clock ticking down, sophomore defenseman Luke Hughes corralled a spiraling puck and ripped it short side just before the buzzer rang. Then pandemonium ensued, and the Wolverines spilled onto the ice to tackle Hughes and celebrate their sixth straight ‘Duel in the D’ victory.
Michigan (20-9-1 overall, 12-8-0 Big Ten) just barely managed to beat the Spartans (15-15-2, 9-11-2) in thrilling overtime fashion, 4-3, by outlasting Michigan State in a contest in which neither side gave the other a moment to breathe.
“Michigan versus Michigan State, it’s the two schools that hate each other the most,” freshman forward Frank Nazar III said. “Obviously there’s a ton of intensity in that. … We’re not just doing it for ourselves, we’re doing it for all the guys who have played.”
Before the contest even started, it was apparent that the Wolverines’ needed to alter their game plan. With star freshman forward Adam Fantilli out due to a disqualification penalty the night before, freshman forward T.J. Hughes and the second line became the first unit. And it was Hughes who finally broke a dreary 15 minute stalemate with a one-timed rebound goal on the powerplay.
Immediately after T.J. Hughes’ goal however, the game’s intensity ratcheted up and Michigan State forward Miroslav Mucha responded with a goal just two minutes later. Mucha’s goal sent a clear message that carried both teams throughout the night — every action would see an immediate response.
Each time the Wolverines pressed, leveled hits or created chances, the Spartans came right back and did the same. The flow went both ways though, and when forward Jeremy Davidson put the Spartans up a goal halfway through the second period, it took only a minute and a half for Michigan to reverse the lead. Back-to-back goals from sophomore forward Dylan Duke and freshman forward Frank Nazar III put the Wolverines up 3-2.
“It’s just different momentum shifts,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “They push, then we push back and vice-versa. Just trying to ride the wave.”
Even with the Wolverines leading heading into the third period, there was never a moment where they were firmly in control of the night’s outcome. Michigan State pressed repeatedly, building chances through time in the zone and catching Michigan flat-footed in transition. Over and over again, those chances were stymied by junior goaltender Erik Portillo.
But the tension only grew.
Late in the third, it was clear that for the first time of the night one side had taken full control of the momentum. With just under five minutes to play, the Spartans finally capitalized as defenseman Michael Underwood slipped a shot from the point past Portillo to level the game.
Regulation came to a close with both teams in the position they had started, generating frequent chances, but locked in a grueling battle for control. In overtime, sophomore forward Dylan Duke lurched forward and tripped an opponent, gifting momentary control to Michigan State as he headed to the box for two minutes in sudden-death overtime.
The Wolverines were on the ropes with no room for error. But they killed the penalty off and returned to full strength with just 46 seconds left to play. As seconds drained away, it seemed all but certain that the game was careening toward a shootout.
“One-hundred percent, I didn’t expect us to score,” Naurato chuckled. “I started writing down who I was going to circle for the shootout.”
Michigan wouldn’t let that shootout happen however. With two seconds left, senior defenseman Jay Keranen wound up for a slapshot that ricocheted off of the board and bounced out perfectly for Luke Hughes, who potted the winner and incited chaos.
“It’s two teams battling — the rivalry, and Michigan-Michigan State, and ‘Duel in The D’ — and they’re a good team and we think we are too,” Nauato said. “It took all the way till one second left to finish it out. It was crazy. It still doesn’t feel real.”
But it was. With a storybook finish, the Wolverines just barely snagged the “Iron D” trophy in the tightest ‘Duel in The D’ in years, beating both the Spartans and the clock.