In its first major road test of the season, Michigan started off poorly.
Forcing bad passes and struggling to pick up rebounds, the Wolverines struggled under the Bulldogs’ sweltering pressure. In the end, Michigan’s (3-0 overall) ability to capitalize on Duluth’s (2-1) mistakes proved vital to a 5-1 road win.
Duluth dominated almost every aspect of the game early on, peppering Wolverine goaltender Erik Portillo with shots and winning back the puck by breaking up Michigan’s attack. The Bulldogs strapped themselves into the driver’s seat of the game, and the Wolverines couldn’t answer for the better part of the first period.
Duluth forward Jesse Jacques opened the scoring halfway into the first period. Forward Kobe Roth’s backhander rolled behind the crease after a sprawling save from Portillo, and Roth raced to his own rebound. He passed it to Jacques, who chipped it in the net under heavy contact as Portillo tried to regain position.
The Bulldogs now owned a slim lead, but they thoroughly controlled the game’s tempo with their speed. They had numbers wherever the puck rolled, and they capitalized on those numbers to keep the puck for long swaths of time.
“(Duluth) came out really hot,” sophomore forward Matty Beniers said. “When you’re playing (as) an away team, you’ve got to match that especially the first five minutes or else they’re gonna keep it coming.”
But that momentum soon derailed. A high elbow from Duluth captain Noah Cates sent Michigan captain Nick Blankenburg hard into the boards behind the Wolverines’ goal. The hit earned Cates a match penalty, and Michigan’s hot power play had a premium opportunity to get the Wolverines back in the game.
And that’s exactly what it did.
After struggling to set up shooting lanes in the Bulldogs’ zone for the first three minutes of the power play, Michigan’s second unit found a way to stretch Duluth’s defenders. Freshman defenseman Luke Hughes took the puck across the ice before meeting Blankenburg for a snap shot. As the rebound trickled away, so did Hughes across the ice, and he used his space to fire a cross-crease pass into the net.
Not only was the score evened, but so too was the energy of the game. The Wolverines looked out of place before, but for the rest of the game they kept up with the Bulldogs on both sides of the ice.
“We were a little too cute in the first 10 minutes,” senior forward Garrett Van Wyhe said. “And they’re a really good transition team, so credit them, but we got back to our game, getting it deep behind them and going to work.”
After the goal, the Wolverines started to keep up with the Bulldogs on both sides of the ice. Part of this came from Duluth’s line juggling to replace Cates, a senior and key contributor on offense, and many of those changes came up flat against Michigan. The Wolverines jumped on these mismatches, using hard forechecking and clean transition play to keep the Bulldogs unsettled.
Michigan’s defense shined, forcing many low-danger shots when Duluth gained offensive zone possessions. Many of these came from singular Bulldogs’ efforts, and the Wolverines encouraged this by clogging the passing lanes.
That control of the game led to a Michigan lead 6:20 into the second period. A pass toward the net from sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau met the tape of sophomore forward Brendan Brisson, who shot the puck through his legs and past Duluth goaltender Zach Stejskal.
Beniers would stretch that lead eight minutes later with an easy shot to the right of Stejskal. Hughes wheeled along the boards while protecting the puck, pulling the Bulldogs to the right side of the ice. That left sophomore forward Kent Johnson open on the left, and when he got the puck he utilized the extra space to meet Beniers.
“There’s a point where you gotta chip it in and go get it, put pressure on them,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “And (Duluth is) not unlike any other hockey team, you have to force them into mistakes and once we did that, then we could take advantage of those opportunities.”
Jumping on Duluth’s mistakes stayed a trend in the third period. With the Bulldogs on the power play, senior forward Garrett Van Wyhe hijacked a D-to-D pass to go on a breakaway, striking paydirt with a shot under Stejskal’s arm.
Beniers put the game on ice with 46 seconds left in the game, scoring on a late power play after cleaning up a loose puck, jumping on the Bulldogs when they couldn’t clear it from the crease.
Michigan came out flat in the first period, but it struck when Duluth made mistakes. That ability to capitalize gave the Wolverines a statement win against a powerhouse program.