The Michigan hockey team knows what it’s like to come back from a long break.
First, there was the 251-day offseason. Then, the 30-day holiday break, before, finally, the Wolverines went 21 days without a game or practice due to the athletic department’s COVID-19 induced shutdown. At the end of each of those layovers, Michigan dominated in its first game back, winning the three contests by a combined score of 22-2.
On Friday at Yost Ice Arena, Arizona State was coming off a shorter — but still significant — pause. Entering the game, the Sun Devils hadn’t played since Feb. 15, as their series against Penn State last weekend was canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Nittany Lions’ program.
Unlike the Wolverines, though, Arizona State came off its pause looking like a team that truly hadn’t played a game in 11 days. In Michigan’s 4-1 win, the Sun Devils’ disorganization prevented them from generating any offense and led to careless mistakes on the defensive end.
The Wolverines were happy to take advantage. Crucially, Arizona State’s lack of recent game experience hampered the effectiveness of its scrappy, physical style of play. From the start, the Sun Devils tried to be the aggressor, finishing hits and committing to an aggressive forecheck. At times, it worked, and Michigan’s breakouts ended in an errant pass or turnover.
Just as often, though, Arizona State’s aggression spilled into carelessness, and that’s where the Wolverines capitalized.
“I think when you’re not in that game mode and mentality, that you haven’t continued to play, it can take you a while to get going,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “I thought that’s why it’s important to jump them in the first period.”
Jump they did. The Wolverines’ first goal — a late-first period deflection in front by sophomore forward Eric Ciccolini — forced the Sun Devils to ramp up the aggression even more, which Michigan countered with its speed.
One of the Wolverines’ forward lines — featuring freshmen Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson, and senior Luke Morgan — was especially effective in taking advantage of Arizona State’s overaggression. While Beniers and Johnson used their unique skating and stickhandling abilities to avoid hits, Morgan was more creative with his passing. The end result was a hat trick for Beniers, with Morgan getting an assist two of his goals and Johnson setting up the other.
“I think our speed matched up well with (Arizona State’s physicality),” Morgan said. “They took some chances on some hits, and we just chipped it around them. We came with a lot of speed, a lot of support, and that created a lot of odd-man rushes and two-on-ones in the zone.”
Added Beniers: “They’re definitely a physical team, but we’ve got a lot of speed, and we were just committed to playing the right way.”
Not lost, of course, is the fact that Arizona State is in the middle of a brutal season. The Sun Devils’ 6-15-2 record speaks for itself — if they were official members of an eight-team Big Ten, they would sit sixth in the conference.
Still, the convincing win speaks to Michigan’s preparation. The team recognized the game that Arizona State would try to play and where the Sun Devils’ long layover could lead to mistakes.
Of course, the fact that the Wolverines had gone through that themselves didn’t hurt.