STATE COLLEGE — Just 53 seconds into the overtime period, Nittany Lion right wing Blake Gober sealed the Wolverines’ fate with a tap-in off a wrap-around shot that beat sophomore goaltender Jack LaFontaine.
In a much-anticipated matchup between the Michigan hockey team (0-1 Big Ten, 3-2 overall) and No. 15 Penn State (2-1, 4-3), the Wolverines had almost proven that rankings aren’t everything.
Just 2:03 into the game, sophomore right wing Will Lockwood silenced a rowdy Nittany Lion student section with a backhanded goal from the slot. In an uncertain contest, the Wolverines struck first, showing that their hard-nosed mentality could possibly yield an upset.
“It gives you confidence,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “It takes the crowd out of the game.”
But with under seven minutes remaining in the period, junior forward Cooper Marody received a two-minute slashing penalty, which gave Penn State an opportunity to claw its way back into the game. Right wing Andrew Sturtz capitalized on that chance, scoring a goal that ricocheted up and over LaFontaine.
After back-and-forth shot attempts from both sides, Marody carried the puck down the right flank and dished to senior left wing Dexter Dancs for a one-time shot that flew past Penn State goaltender Peyton Jones’ shoulder for Michigan’s second goal.
In that opening stretch, the Wolverines demonstrated that previous notions of their inability to score early are flawed. In the biggest game of their season so far, they responded with perhaps the most aggressive hockey they have played.
The matchup could have been defined by the Nittany Lions’ aggressive playing style, but instead, LaFontaine and the rest of the Michigan skaters showed just how formidable their efforts could be.
“Yeah, it was a physical game,” Dancs said. “We knew it was going to be a physical game. Every time we come here, it’s physical.”
In a first period that had most fans on the edge of their seats, LaFontaine saved 17 of the Nittany Lions’ 18 shots to help the Wolverines maintain a 2-1 advantage.
“I give Penn State a lot of credit,” Pearson said. “They played hard. They came out and created a lot of great scoring chances, and Jack LaFontaine did a great job of keeping us in the game.”
Nine combined shots defined the first three minutes of the second period, and as both teams seemed fully entrenched in the game, it looked like whichever team was going to come out on top would do so by sheer will.
With Penn State receiving a clear wakeup call, it started to flex its muscles in the second period, controlling most of the possession with high pressure on the Michigan defense. And after a boarding call on sophomore left wing Jake Slaker, the Nittany Lions would go a man up for the chance to net an equalizer.
Following a LaFontaine save on a shot by left wing Alex Limoges that saw him leaping across the front of the net, sophomore center Adam Winborg gave Penn State yet another power play opportunity for cross-checking. Upon his exit from the penalty box, left wing and leading scorer Denis Smirnov finally cracked the Wolverine defense to tie the game at two.
With 7:06 remaining in the second period, Pearson called a timeout to calm a visibly fatigued Michigan line that was losing the 50/50 chances it had been winning just a period before.
His timeout proved fruitful, as Dancs netted his second goal of the game off a power-play scrum in front of the net to breathe life into the bleeding Wolverine front and give it a 3-2 lead.
After a 4:32 equalizer from Limoges, Marody silenced the Nittany Lion crowd yet again with a crisp wrist shot up and over Jones’ left shoulder to give Michigan a 4-3 lead.
But that one-goal lead proved to be unsafe, as it had all night. Despite LaFontaine’s efforts in the net, with 1:32 left in regulation, center Chase Burger netted yet another equalizer to force the game to overtime.
In the extra period, it was Penn State that finally struck first, and it was decisive.