SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — It has been 27 years since the Michigan hockey team entered an Eastern College Athletic Conference rink, and that long-postponed trip came with a challenge this weekend: the Wolverines’ first ranked opponent of the season, No. 18 Union.
As the rink went dark 10 minutes before puck drop, the only lights that remained set an eerie glow on the crowd at Messa Rink, where two sets of packed wooden bleachers roared out “U-N-I-O-N!” One thing was clear: The Wolverines were walking into a hostile environment.
And with 30 seconds left in a high-scoring affair, Michigan was on the verge of falling prey to that environment. But then, junior center JT Compher fired a shot from the blue line. It took one deflection off of senior forward Justin Selman before hitting twine. Michigan 5, Union 5. Overtime.
That goal saved the Wolverines from an upset loss, and given that neither team could score in the golden-goal period, No. 11 Michigan left its first trip to Schenectady with a 5-5 tie.
“It was an up and down game,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “The second period, we were playing well and yet we gave up three unanswered goals, and then we finally got going with our own offense in the third period. The puck was going in too easy on both ends of the rink.”
Added Compher: “They were ready to go more than we were, and that’s not acceptable. That’s something that’s gonna change. Luckily we were able to battle back, and it didn’t bite us too much. Obviously we feel like we let this one get away, but we can’t repeat the same thing twice.”
The Wolverines escaped the first period tied at zero, but Union had the advantage, an indication of things to come.
The Dutchmen played a fast-paced offense from the opening whistle, as they frequently got out on counters and forced the Wolverines to defend in transition. Michigan, on the other hand, struggled to possess in the attacking zone, failed to accumulate any legitimate scoring chances and was outshot 8-4.
Things got even worse for the Wolverines to begin the second period, as Union opened the scoring off the stick of forward Mark Dufour just two minutes into the frame.
After senior forward Boo Nieves lost the puck at the offensive blue line, Dufour was in on a breakaway. He capitalized on the opening, lighting the lamp for the first time with a finish over Racine’s stick-side shoulder.
Michigan hurt itself three minutes later by committing two penalties to create a 5-on-3 power play for the Dutchmen, but after the penalty kill unit accomplished its task, the Wolverines looked rejuvenated.
“Certainly killing a 5-on-3 always brings any team up,” said Union forward Roman Ammirato. “(Michigan) kept it simple. We just had to capitalize and put them down when they are down, (but) we didn’t do that, and it gave them some momentum.”
Michigan turned the tide on Union and began to possess well in the offensive zone, eventually finding its breakthrough goal in the 15th minute. After junior defenseman Nolan De Jong hit a puck from the offensive circle, junior forward Alex Kile — who was in front of Union goalie Alex Sakellaropoulos — deflected the puck into the net to even the game at one.
Yet the stalemate was short-lived, as the Dutchmen jumped back ahead three minutes later. Union center Ryan Scarfo received the puck with an opening in the middle of the ice, and found twine despite Racine’s sprawling effort to give his team a 2-1 lead.
And with less than 15 seconds left in the second period, Dufour fired a slap shot on net, which Racine couldn’t get his glove on, putting Michigan in a 3-1 hole to enter the third period.
But in the final frame, the Wolverines started with a bang, scoring twice within the opening five minutes. Just two minutes into the third period, Michigan scored on a designed play, as Compher directed the puck off the faceoff to junior forward Tyler Motte, who put the puck away from just in front of net.
Three minutes later, Connor split two Union defenders down the right wing before feeding the puck in front of the net to senior forward Justin Selman, who tied the game at three.
With their hopes brought back from the dead, the Wolverines turned up the intensity and scored to gain their first lead of the game. In the 10th minute of the period, sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski received the puck at center ice and fired a slap shot from just inside the blue line. Marody beat his man to the puck after Werenski’s shot was deflected and tallied his second goal of the game.
Yet the comeback proved too good to be true. A minute later, Union forward Michael Pontarelli found twine to even the score once again. For the ensuing four minutes, both clubs battled back and forth in pursuit of the decisive goal, before Union delivered what appeared to be the final blow with five minutes left.
With hope fading, Compher came to the rescue, turning what was almost certainly a disappointing 5-4 loss into a respectable 5-5 tie against a ranked opponent.
“There was just a lane and I knew we had to get pucks to the net,” Compher said. “Hell of a job by Selman and really good job by Motte in front of the net screening the goalie. We did a good job in the third period coming back.”