“Don’t let the puck cross the line.”
That was the only thought going through Joseph Cecconi’s mind late in Saturday night’s game against Michigan State.
With under three minutes left in regulation, sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne had just made two critical saves to preserve the Michigan hockey team’s 3-2 lead over the Spartans. But the rebound was loose and the netminder was out of position to make a play.
Michigan State forward Cody Milan backhanded the puck toward a wide-open net, and suddenly, the Spartans were milliseconds from tying the game and spoiling the Wolverines’ hopes for a regulation win and three points.
But in swooped Cecconi, and the junior defenseman would follow through on his own command.
Originally, Cecconi wanted to swat the puck away from the goal, but as he fell backward into the net, he realized he couldn’t. Instead, he caught the puck in his right hand and caressed it to his chest. Recognizing where he was, Cecconi pushed the puck out before it could cross the goal line — preventing, after further review, the game-tying goal.
“When it’s a scramble like that, everyone has to go back to the front of the net,” Cecconi said. “I was the closest guy to the net and Hayden was far out, so I just stepped right in there and made a save, I guess.”
The previous night, Cecconi was watching his teammates from the Munn Ice Arena stands in East Lansing, dejected after being called for a game misconduct and ejection for a high hit midway through the first period. Twenty-four hours later at Little Caesars Arena, the blueliner was making a heroic heads-up play to ultimately seal a Michigan victory in the annual “Duel at the D.”
Three minutes earlier, Cecconi was the first one down the ice with the puck, looking to make a play on the rush. A pinpoint cross-ice pass to a trailing Quinn Hughes resulted in a toe-drag from the freshman defenseman and the game-winning goal.
Saturday night’s standout game was just an addition to an already-breakout season for Cecconi. His 16 points — four goals and 12 assists — and 69 shots double his production in both categories from his freshman and sophomore campaigns.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson believes that while Cecconi’s offensive ability has always been there, he hadn’t been able to put it to good use until this season.
After two years of being underutilized, Pearson’s new systems suddenly gave Cecconi the chance to capitalize, especially on the power play. Focused on moving the puck low-to-high in the offensive zone, the Wolverines’ defensemen are now registering more shots from the blueline, affording Cecconi scoring opportunities aplenty. And he hasn’t put them to waste.
With crisp passes and strong blasts from the point, the Youngstown, N.Y. native has notched two goals and seven assists with the man advantage — comprising more than of half his points and more than any fellow defenseman with the extra man.
“He’s got good offensive skills, and I just think with that encouragement and confidence and the opportunity, he’s taken advantage of it,” Pearson said. “I think his growth in his game is huge.”
Pearson credits part of Cecconi’s offensive success to his elite puck management, seen in swift breakouts from the defensive zone, anticipating his teammates’ positions and passing “like a pro.”
On defense, his 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame contributes to an increased reach with the stick and being able to body up opponents in scrums.
But Pearson was quickest to point to Cecconi’s increased maturity as a reason for recent achievements.
He believes Cecconi’s elevated poise started with winning a gold medal with Team USA at the 2017 U-20 World Junior Championships — an experience that “really changed him.” Next was being named an assistant captain.
“Obviously, he is a leader, he wears a letter, he plays in every situation for us,” Pearson said. “He’s still young, but he’s matured a lot, and I think just taking on that added responsibility has helped him understand what being a leader is all about.”
Cecconi agrees. Offseason drills upped his technical game, but he considers his veteran presence on a roster mainly comprised of youngsters to have made the greatest difference.
“Being an upperclassman, I know that I have more of a role to play on the team,” Cecconi said. “I think that added to my confidence.”
And the “A” on Cecconi’s jersey is rubbing off on his teammates.
“Joe’s a great friend, a great teammate and a great player, obviously,” said freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes, Cecconi’s defensive partner. “He just keeps things light, he’s not always serious … and he’s a very well-liked guy in the locker room.”
With intimidating defense, sharpshooting on the power play and veteran leadership, Cecconi has stepped up in a big way.
“He understands how the team counts on a guy like him,” Pearson said. “Especially when you’re given the opportunity, you have to seize it and take advantage of it, and he has.”