Down a goal in front of a raucous Saturday-night crowd, the Michigan hockey team’s hopes of salvaging a weekend series rested on the stick of Boo Nieves.
The senior forward careened toward the net from the corner, and sophomore forward Tony Calderone dove after the rebound with abandon. Dartmouth goaltender Devin Buffalo made 37 saves on the night, but this puck slid untouched, almost serenely, across the line amid the tangle of bodies in front.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Calderone said. “But hey, it counts.”
Calderone is right. The 2-1 shootout win, officially a tie, wasn’t pretty in a classic sense — but it was beautiful in its own way.
The Wolverines (7-2-2) opened the 2015 season with the tricky task of navigating a soft non-conference schedule. Hockey, more than most other sports, is a game that either contestant can win on any given night. Michigan’s 26th-ranked strength of schedule, out of 60 teams, makes any misstep more costly.
The first game of the weekend was a cakewalk. The Wolverines converted 27 percent of their shots into goals in a 7-0 drubbing of the Big Green. But the best results of a season are often earned when the bounces are falling the wrong way. Saturday, for the first time this season, Michigan showed an ability to will the puck to the back of the net.
The biggest challenge was overcoming Dartmouth’s stellar goaltending. In his second game of the season, Buffalo earned what should be a permanent starting role. In a small sample size of 100 minutes this fall, the sophomore has faced 52 shots, recording a save percentage of .942 and a goals against average of 1.92.
That mark would be good enough for sixth in the NCAA. The Big Green’s other two goaltenders rank last and second to last, respectively.
Buffalo slammed the door shut on several close-range attempts with remarkable pad speed behind an inspired defensive effort. The result was frustration for Michigan’s high-octane offense.
But instead of settling for chances around the fringe of the offensive zone, as the team has been prone to do in underwhelming performances this year, the Wolverines crashed the net hard. The strategy finally paid dividends with Calderone’s goal.
Michigan’s offense is at times reminiscent of a sharpshooting basketball team. The Wolverines have a deep pool of finesse players that like to score on tic-tac-toe passing. When everything is clicking, the puck moves through the offensive zone with startling ease and efficiency. When it isn’t, the play is akin to watching a team go cold from the 3-point line.
In college hockey, an ability to survive tightly contested games night in and night out is necessary to build a sufficient resume for the postseason. In this sense, grit can be more important to winning championships than elite defense and goaltending.
In fact, the last 10 teams to win the national championship ranked, on average, just 12th and 17th in goals-against and save percentage.
Friday’s win was almost effortless. On Saturday, pretty much everything that could have gone wrong did. An early goal was scored on a deflection from a bad angle, Michigan required two goaltenders after senior Steve Racine left with a lower-body injury and Buffalo posted a career performance.
It was the kind of game that is easy to lose, but Michigan didn’t.
Calderone is right — the Wolverines’ play wasn’t pretty. But walking away with a tie might be the most impressive result yet this season.