With its jet-lagged Olympians trickling back from Beijing, the No. 2 Michigan hockey team decided to roll with the same depth players that carried it to convincing wins the past two weeks. After all, Michigan coach Mel Pearson believed they deserved the opportunity based on their recent play.
And once again, this group of Wolverines proved up to the task.
Led by solid defense from its depth, Michigan (25-7-1) stayed in control all game against No. 11 Ohio State (21-11-2), winning 3-0 and sweeping the weekend series.
“It should be a boost for everybody on our team,” Pearson said. “… You want the opportunity but it’s what you do when you get it, and our guys came in and did a good job.”
The Wolverines’ good work started early, as sophomore forward Philippe Lapointe scored halfway through the first period — his third goal in just nine games. Forwards like freshman Mackie Samoskevich kept up that pressure and created dangerous chances at 5-on-5, although 35 minutes worth of penalties made even strength a rare sight across the first two periods.
When players were in the box, the hole left by Michigan’s missing Olympians finally showed up. After the Wolverines got Ohio State goaltender Jakub Dobes out of position on the power play, multiple one-timers zipped wide of the net. Those shots kept the Buckeyes on their toes, but they didn’t add anything on the scoreboard.
But Michigan’s usual contributors — especially freshman defenseman Luke Hughes — helped make up that difference. Hughes scored an end-to-end goal in the second period that put Michigan in the driver’s seat, up 2-0.
And with that control, the Wolverines focused on possessing the puck for as long as possible to run out the clock. Instead of looking for scoring plays to widen the lead, they played keepaway with the puck for long shifts and minimized the Buckeyes’ time on offense.
Because if Ohio State didn’t have the puck, it couldn’t score.
“We didn’t change anything, but you wouldn’t know it,” Pearson said. “We just weren’t as aggressive. I think we were just concerned about getting trapped and making sure we had enough guys back.”
And it didn’t matter who Michigan put out on the ice, as long as they stuck to their game plan and locked down their own end. The Wolverines excelled at that more and more as the game wore on.
Michigan avoided costly mistakes that could flip momentum, although sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau took a few chances near the end of the third period. He almost set up a goal for freshman forward Dylan Duke with around six minutes left in the game, but the puck rolled just wide of the net.
A few minutes later, freshman forward Mark Estapa sealed the game — and a series sweep of Ohio State — with an empty-netter. That’s a feat the Wolverines couldn’t pull off two months ago with two Olympians in the lineup, as they split a series in Columbus. That improvement comes as Michigan’s postseason aspirations are firmly inview, with just one regular season series remaining.
“It’s playoff hockey right now,” Lapointe said. “It’s getting down to the nitty gritty, standings are close. We’re harping on making good plays, being good defensively and having good habits for playoff hockey down the stretch.”
Michigan’s depth players performed admirably while their teammates chased Olympic dreams, keeping the Wolverines afloat near the top of college hockey. Even before the game, estimating who exactly would come out of the lineup was a challenge.
After another strong outing against the Buckeyes, answering that question got a whole lot harder.