When the No. 7 Michigan hockey team traveled to Columbus to play lowly Ohio State last Friday, Feb. 19, the expectation was that the Wolverines wouldn’t face much of a challenge. The Buckeyes were slumping, while Michigan had won six of eight games since returning from its winter break, including two against Ohio State.
Instead, the Wolverines came out sloppy, leading to two first-period fluke goals for the Buckeyes which allowed them to get comfortable and shift their focus to defense. Michigan would go on to lose, 3-2 to Ohio State.
So when Arizona State, a team with a similar record as Ohio State, came to town this weekend, it was imperative that the Wolverines didn’t begin the series with the same mistake.
From the instant the puck dropped, the Wolverines did just that, keeping the Sun Devils on their toes for the entire first period by forechecking aggressively and quickly shutting down the few odd-man rushes Arizona State got. As a result, Michigan (13-8 overall, 10-8 Big Ten) took a two-goal lead over the Sun Devils (6-15-2) into the first intermission and only extended it for a 4-1 win.
“We knew how important this Friday game was to come out … with energy,” senior forward Luke Morgan said. “I think it was just the little things that got us up on the bench. A blocked shot, taking a hit to make a play, giving a hit and creating a turnover. We just build off that … and create energy.”
While the Wolverines came out strong, they struggled to find the back of the net early on. Despite taking 10 shots over the first 16 minutes of the game compared to Arizona State’s two, the game remained scoreless for the majority of the first period. But with just over three minutes left to play in the period, Michigan finally broke through when sophomore forward Eric Ciccolini deflected a shot past goaltender Cole Brady.
Less than two minutes later, the Wolverines beat Brady again, this time on a beautiful passing play. Freshman forward Kent Johnson circled around the net and up to the point before cycling the puck down to Morgan. Morgan hit freshman defenseman Owen Power with a cross-crease pass, and rather than shoot, Power baited Brady and found freshman forward Matty Beniers right in front of the net for an easy tap in.
“(Beniers) got to the net, and that was certainly a big change that I think we saw today,” Morgan said. “I think just playing up and getting on their (defense) quick on the forecheck and creating some turnovers.”
Following two unsuccessful power plays to start the second period, though, the tides started to turn in favor of the Sun Devils.
Michigan struggled to kill a penalty, needing multiple quality saves from freshman goaltender Erik Portillo to keep Arizona State off the board. From there, the Wolverines’ transition play became a little porous, giving the Sun Devils multiple chances off odd-man rushes, but Portillo wouldn’t let anything get past him.
“I just didn’t think we played as smart with the puck,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We had the puck a lot. You have to play smart with it, and I thought we just had too many offensive zone turnovers on the rush in the danger zone between the blue line (and the) top of (the) circles. We just got … a little casual.”
With just under six minutes left in the period, Beniers struck again with another tap in off a cross-crease pass from Johnson to give Michigan some added breathing room, but Arizona State came back with a goal of its own when a deflected puck hit forward Chris Grando in front of the net and went in.
The Sun Devils threatened for the remainder of the period, but the Wolverines quickly regained their momentum to start the third period. Five minutes in, Beniers put an exclamation point on the night, wristing a shot past Brady to complete his hat trick and put Michigan back up by three.
“I think it was a good job putting them away,” Beniers said. “They were definitely getting some momentum there, and I think that goal kind of just killed them.”
In the end, a dominant first period and timely scoring prevented Arizona State from gaining much traction throughout the game. Beniers and the fast start propelled the Wolverines to a victory, a stark contrast from the opening game of Michigan’s series the weekend prior.