COLUMBUS — With an outstretched skate and some faceoff grit, freshmen defenseman Nick Blankenburg and forward Garrett Van Wyhe proved in Michigan hockey’s series split at Ohio State that they’re here to stay.
It’s not hyperbole to say that the Wolverines had their backs against the wall coming into this weekend’s series. They were missing sophomore forward Josh Norris due to an undisclosed injury, needed some kind of momentum after losing to 52nd-ranked Merrimack and faced a fourth-ranked Buckeyes team that had 14 active upperclassmen but no freshmen.
Rather than folding to the pressure though, Michigan’s own freshmen were largely responsible for holding Ohio State to 16 fewer shots per game in the series than its season average, and putting pressure on an experienced blue line.
“We have a lot of growth,” said Wolverines coach Mel Pearson. “I mention that a lot, and I’m going to continue to talk about it. This team has a lot of room for growth, and I think you’re going to see it as the season progresses.”
Early on in Friday’s game, Blankenburg found himself sandwiched in a 2-on-1 odd-man rush deep in the defensive zone, with nothing but an empty zone between him and Michigan goaltender Hayden Lavigne. Just minutes before, the Wolverines allowed Ohio State forward Carson Meyer to score because they committed too much to one player in a passing lane, allowing Meyer to tip in a goal on the ensuing pass.
As the two Ohio State players bounced the puck between each other, Blankenburg, unlike what Michigan did on the last goal, played the middle of the passing lane. Almost without thinking, the freshman intercepted the puck with an outstretched right skate. Making decisions like that naturally takes time for younger players, but perhaps that time has come for Blankenburg.
And in the absence of Norris, that time might just be here for Van Wyhe too. Though he’s usually on the Wolverines' fourth line, he’s found a niche as one of Michigan’s best players for faceoffs and hasn’t been someone that the Buckeyes and opposing teams can dismiss for his linemates. Van Wyhe’s seven shots on goal this series — many of which were inches from finding the back of the net — and his 16-28 line on faceoffs showcase his current ability.
“How good is he?” Pearson said with a touch of excitement. “He’s really matured. I mean, he’s coming into his own this second half. He had a couple good scoring chances and he’s going to score some goals. We have the confidence as a staff to play him against anybody. Team’s top lines, no issue, he’s over the boards. That’s quite a feat for a young player.”
For Michigan to return to last year’s form, relying on players like Van Wyhe and Blankenburg, not to mention freshman goaltender Strauss Mann, has become the norm as opposed to the exception. They don’t need to be Norris or sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes right away, but as Pearson said, it’s important that the team can trust the freshmen against any line in any arena.
“When they’re juniors and seniors, they’ll be like some of their guys who are juniors and seniors. And that’s another thing. We came and played against a whole different stronger, experienced team, and I thought we held our own … that’s encouraging going forward.”