In one of the most highly-anticipated games of the young season, No. 11 Minnesota traveled to Yost Ice Arena to take on the No. 3 Michigan hockey team. The Big Ten powerhouses boast some of the top rosters and coaching staffs in the nation, setting the stage for an epic duel.
After the Golden Gophers notched three first period goals, though, the game was all but decided. Minnesota kept its foot on the gas as it dominated in the neutral zone and during transition.
“We have to manage the game better,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We have to make sure that we don’t give up the outnumbered rushes like we did tonight. We were just sloppy in that area. We have to have more of a defensive mindset.”
The Golden Gophers had little trouble entering the offensive zone as they maneuvered past the Wolverine defense. On countless occasions they made defensive zone breakouts look easy and neutral zone dumps even easier. Minnesota opened the game with a score midway through the first period, and it came via an unusual play.
Sophomore defenseman Jacob Truscott — one of the more conservative defensemen on the team — jumped forward and laid a check near the penalty boxes. The hit was solid, but he left his partner freshman defenseman Luke Hughes to defend an odd-man rush. He took away the pass and left sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo to guard the shot. Golden Gopher defenseman Brock Faber drove in on his forehand, froze Portillo, deked and scored on a backhanded shot.
The game was still young, but it was just the start of a disastrous night for Michigan.
“They beat us up ice,” Pearson said. “The first goal is a great example. … (Faber) beats our guys back up the ice and gets the pass on the two on one and scores. We had a bad pinch in the neutral zone by one of our defensemen.”
The Wolverines are one of the most talented teams in the country, but it’s been their play in the dirty areas that has made them so difficult to beat. From bottom-six forwards like senior Garrett Van Wyhe to flashier players like sophomore Kent Johnson, everyone on Michigan contributes to the battles down low. This makes opponents’ lives miserable, even when they successfully dump the puck, they have to deal with the ferocious Wolverines.
Tonight, Minnesota’s offense dictated the flow of the game en route to the demolition of Michigan.
Pearson ended the onslaught on Portillo and started the third period with sophomore transfer Noah West in net. Just four minutes into his debut, the Golden Gophers introduced him to Big Ten hockey with a challenging attack. Hughes was beaten while trying to keep possession on the power play. He trailed the surging Minnesota forward on his breakaway and was bailed out by an excellent glove save from West.
West was sharp in his first appearance, but it hardly mattered as the Wolverines faced a four-goal deficit for much of the final period.
“We just didn’t get enough pucks in traffic,” West said. “At the start of the game, the rebounds were there. I think if we would’ve gotten to the net earlier we would’ve been able to take advantage of more of those.”
Michigan wants to play fast and get the puck up the ice in a hurry. Considering its offensive firepower and skilled defensemen, this is generally a good plan. But, against the Golden Gophers, they looked like a shell of themselves. Minnesota’s early strikes deflated the Wolverines’ energy and throughout the game, they simply outworked Michigan. The transition game was theirs and the puck control was lopsided.
For the first time all year, there was a noticeable difference between the Wolverines and their opponent. The Golden Gophers made them look like an ordinary team —something that couldn’t be less true. But, if their efforts are replicated tomorrow night, there may be a more sizeable gap than anticipated atop the Big Ten.