It seemed odd that the No. 6 Michigan hockey team had a scheduled exhibition game in January — normally, exhibition games take place before the regular season. They allow teams to knock off any lingering rust from the offseason, and they enable a coaching staff to evaluate their players in a game setting.
It seemed especially odd because the opponent was the immensely talented U-18 United States National Team Development Program.
However, the game couldn’t have been timelier. It allowed Michigan to rest some of its players — freshman forward Cooper Marody, senior netminder Steve Racine and sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski all got the night off. It also allowed the Wolverines to see what their lineup would look like without sophomore defenseman Cutler Martin and sophomore forward Dexter Dancs, who are suspended for three and two games, respectively, following an after-game brawl against Ohio State last Sunday.
And while the Wolverines got off to a lackadaisical start, they finished in control, beating the USNTDP, 5-2, in a chippy game.
“Historically, it can be (a chippy game),” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “I can’t tell you why. I don’t think the players that have played in that program try and play chippy against the program kids. Sometimes the program kids are maybe mad that Michigan didn’t recruit them, and the kids we recruit want to put on a good showing. You never know what direction it is going to go.”
Foe a game in which only pride is on the line, a good outcome is one where you leave the game healthy and without suspensions. For Michigan, that might not hold true.
Late in the game, freshman sensation Kyle Connor took a spill into the boards and stayed down on the ice for a couple minutes before skating off under his power. Berenson said after the game that there will be an update on Connor’s condition Friday — the only outcome that matters from Thursday’s game.
Earlier, midway through the second period, junior forward Alex Kile was ejected for charging at Harvard commit Adam Fox. The NCAA will likely review the hit and determine any further consequences. Kile’s game misconduct was his second in as many games after he left the bench during the Ohio State fight. The Americans showed the same fire, with Michigan defenseman commit Griffin Luce earning a game misconduct for a vicious hit on freshman Brendan Warren.
“Judging from last year, frustration sets in and it’s hard to get motivated for a game like this, but we responded well to it,” said sophomore forward Tony Calderone. “I think a couple guys got out of hand, but we did well.”
To open the game, NTDP coach Danton Cole started all five Michigan commits — forwards James Sanchez, Will Lockwood and Nick Pastujov as well as Luce and fellow defenseman Luke Martin. Next fall, those five will join the six NTDP alumni currently playing at Michigan, barring any unforeseen changes.
When the puck dropped, the game’s start was anything but similar to last weekend’s series against Ohio State. The Wolverines — averaging an astounding 4.86 goals per game — were largely held in check, mustering just seven shots in the first frame. And also unlike the previous weekend, Michigan held the NTDP scoreless until, just three minutes into the second frame, Pastujov threw a pass from the slot to Western Michigan commit Keenan Suthers, who sniped the puck past junior goaltender Zach Nagelvoort.
And the Wolverine offense finally awoke when it had its five-minute power play chance. Thirty seconds into the man advantage, junior defenseman Michael Downing rifled a shot from the point that junior forward Tyler Motte banged home. Soon thereafter, in the third period, Calderone beat Boston University commit Jake Oettinger on his glove side to give the Wolverines their first lead of the game. And less than a minute later, Motte extended the lead to two on a one-timer chance. Junior forward Max Shuart and Calderone’s second tally rounded out the team’s scoring.