For the first time in two weeks, the Michigan hockey team scored first. 

While Wednesday’s game was far from a blowout, the Wolverines dominated the first few minutes against Penn State, and that made all the difference in their 3-1 win. Michigan’s speed and aggression in the neutral zone made it difficult for the Nittany Lions to get hold onto the puck for more than a few seconds at a time. 

The Wolverines got in six shots — the last of which put Michigan on the board — before Penn State got the puck to the crease a single time.

Four minutes into the game, junior forward Nolan Moyle sped down the center of the ice, about a stride ahead of the Nittany Lions defender. Moyle was deep in the slot before Penn State goaltender Oskar Autio was able to set his feet, and by the time Autio could get in position, the puck was already past him.

Michigan coach Mel Pearson noted after the game that it was especially important to notch an early goal against the Nittany Lions, who have yet to win a game this season. Besides giving his own team confidence, he wanted to set the tone that a win wouldn’t be easy for Penn State even though it was playing with the home-ice advantage.

But after the first goal, the Nittany Lions adjusted quickly to Michigan’s style of play, putting an end to the Wolverines’ string of commanding possessions. In the second half of the first period, the teams looked evenly matched, and by the end of the frame, Michigan had nine shots on goal to Penn State’s eight. 

“I thought we got off to a good start today,” Moyle said. “I thought we were doing all the right things, and a key thing tomorrow is just putting 60 minutes together.”

The Wolverines had good opportunities and close shots, but ultimately weren’t able to re-light the lamp again until almost seven and a half minutes into the second period. While it wasn’t playing a particularly offensive game, Michigan stayed the course and kept calm through the later periods, partially a product of its early lead mentality. 

A strong start is something the Wolverines have talked about frequently in practices. They’ve played from behind in their last four contests. At times they’ve shown resilience and at times they’ve buckled under the pressure, but in each of the four games it’s clear Michigan struggled. 

“As we found out, when you’ve got to play catch up, it’s hard,” Pearson said. “I don’t care which team in this league, when you have to play from behind against an opponent it’s hard.”

Comparing Wednesday’s win to the Wolverines most recent game — a loss against Notre Dame on Saturday — the advantage of scoring first couldn’t be more clear. 

In a lot of ways, the games were quite similar. They both featured lots of shooting, but very few goals. In both games, Michigan played mostly around the perimeter and had trouble capitalizing on offensive opportunities. 

The major difference was that last weekend, neither team scored until the third period, and the Fighting Irish got to the net first. Had the Wolverines set the tone with an early spark like they did against the Nittany Lions, it may have been a completely different story.

There are many things Pearson hopes to improve upon going into the second game of the series on Thursday, but there’s one thing he’d like to repeat. 

“We have to get off to a good start again,” Pearson said. “Let them know that we’re here to play.” 

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