SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. — As the No. 5 Michigan hockey team (4-1, overall) took to the ice against Lake Superior State (0-2-1) on Friday night, the newness of the regular season hadn’t completely worn off. While embarking on their first road trip, debuting new lines and wearing new jerseys, the Wolverines were looking for a different result following their season’s first loss to Boston University last Sunday.
And with a 5-2 victory over the Lakers, Michigan found what it wanted. But it wasn’t a victory powered by any of the “newness,” rather by commanding play from its first line consisting of freshman forward Adam Fantilli and sophomore forwards Dylan Duke and Mackie Samoskevich — the only line that was unchanged heading into the game.
“They’re just plus players,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said of the first line. “They’re going hard, they’re getting two points every night, they’re just doing a great job.”
And it didn’t take long for the Wolverines to get going as a result of the first line’s intensity. Just 45 seconds into the matchup, Duke dangled a Lake Superior defenseman and subsequently wired a pass to Fantilli, who ripped a one-timer top-shelf and gave Michigan an early lead.
“I saw (Duke) going down the left side, and I had a little bit of space,” Fantilli said postgame. “I knew he couldn’t see me, so I was screaming for it and he feathered it perfectly right in my wheelhouse and I was able to capitalize on the opportunity.
However, the goal didn’t necessarily equate to momentum and the Wolverines’ pace slowed after. This allowed the Lakers to control the start of the first period by winning puck battles and maintaining possession in the offensive end, and they built an early shot advantage in the process.
But the first line continually pushed Michigan’s offense, and they’d shift momentum back in the Wolverines’ favor midway through the first. On a breakout led by junior defenseman Jacob Truscott, the trio bull rushed the net and Fantilli potted another goal on the resulting rebound.
“He’s an elite player, and it’s good to have him on your team,” Truscott said of Fantilli. “He works his butt off every day, so he deserves this.”
After that point, the Wolverines seized control and dominated the rest of the first period with an effective forecheck. Following the first line’s example, Michigan kept the puck in the offensive end with a hard forecheck and overwhelmed Lakers goalie Ethan Langenegger with shot after shot. And the persistence paid off as Truscott added another tally late in the period on a flukey floating point shot that Langenegger misjudged.
With a fourth goal being added by freshman forward Kienan Draper early in the second, the Wolverines had amassed a commanding early lead. But from that point onwards, Michigan’s play slowed. The speed and forecheck that had powered its offense early was less present, and for the remainder of the contest, the two sides grappled for momentum with the Lakers often winning.
Lake Superior slowed the Wolverines’ offense by forcing them to play a different brand of hockey. The Lakers crowded the middle and cut off end to end rushes, and it stymied the Wolverines. From this, they were able to build an offense of their own by holding possession deep with solid boards play. They capitalized on this twice, first with a chipped one timer in the slot in the second period, and again early in the third on a power play rush. Down only two as opposed to four they had weedled their way back into the contest.
“I would have liked for us to open it up a little more, to push them,” Naurato said. “I think it’s normal, but it’s something that we’re not happy about. (When) we’ve got teams on the rope like that, we have to finish them off early.”
Midway through the third, though, Michigan settled down once again and regained control of the game. It couldn’t quite get its offense jump started completely, but it wouldn’t matter in the end as Fantilli completed a hat trick late with an empty netter to make the score 5-2 and remove all doubt.
There were clear errors and uncertainties in the Wolverines’ play, especially later on. But throughout the entire night, the first line remained a stalwart offensive presence. Duke pushed pucks deep, Samoskevich got himself to the front of the net to screen, and Fantilli was everything he was billed as in recruiting. He used his size intelligently, put himself in the right positions and capitalized when opportunities were presented to him.
“(Fantilli’s) an elite player, and it’s good to have him on your team,” Truscott said. “He works his but off every day so, he deserves this.”
The Lakers figured out how to combat the Wolverines’ speed late in the game on Friday, but not before the first line had already feasted, and it cost them.
In a new environment, with much of the roster in new positions, Michigan found a path to victory. And that path stemmed directly from the offensive group that stuck together. The line that had already established a rhythm that worked, the line that scored three goals — the line that pushed the Wolverines to victory.