MINNEAPOLIS — There weren’t many words spoken on the Michigan hockey team’s bus ride to Mariucci Arena on Friday night.
In fact, Wolverines coach Mel Pearson called it one of the quietest he’s seen this season.
“I think our guys were ready to play,” he said. “… It was a real quiet bus. More than I’d seen it before. I think they were focused and they were anxious to play.”
That anxiety and focus manifested into a breakneck start for Michigan. Senior forward Dexter Dancs slid the puck between the pads of Minnesota goaltender Mat Robson for a Wolverine lead just 15 seconds in. Two more goals would come before the first period came to an end.
Powered by this early outburst, Michigan (4-7-2 Big Ten, 9-10-2 overall) defeated the ninth-ranked Golden Gophers (4-8-1, 13-11-1), 5-3, on Friday, in a crucial conference victory away from home.
For the Wolverines to come away with a win at Mariucci, where Minnesota had won 11 of 13 games this season, managing the pace was priority number one. The wide, Olympic-sized rink is tailor-made for a team as skilled as the Gophers.
“The biggest thing is their transition game,” Pearson said. “You have to just make sure you’re trying to get pucks behind their defnsemen so they have to play without it. That’s one way you can nullify their speed. But when they get going, they’re pretty darn good.”
Minnesota’s talent inevitably shone through. Forward Casey Mittelstadt cut across center ice and roped a shot around junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi 2:21 into the contest to tie the score. But the fast tempo continued — with a little luck thrown in for Michigan. Eight minutes in, freshman forward Michael Pastujov sent the puck across the crease, and it deflected off a Gopher skate and into the net.
The Wolverines’ next goal, however, came more conventionally. The smooth-skating freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes maneuvered around the Minnesota defense out to the right wing, where he set up shop and delivered a pinpoint pass to junior forward Cooper Marody. Marody’s subsequent shot caught twine for a 3-1 Michigan lead after 18 minutes.
“We’ve got a pretty good skating team,” Pearson said. “When we want to play fast and play hard, we can.”
But while one area of emphasis was met for the Wolverines, another important facet — special teams — was not. In the second period, junior defenseman Nicholas Boka and senior defenseman Sam Piazza committed two penalties in quick succession, the latter of which the Gophers took advantage. Sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne blocked an initial attempt from Leon Bristedt, but with the power-play about to expire, Scott Reedy jumped on the rebound and fired the puck home.
As Minnesota began to impose its will and preferred playing style, the Wolverines didn’t register a shot through the second period’s first 10 minutes.
“I didn’t like our penalties tonight, Pearson said. “We’ve got to be better, got to be more disciplined. They got some shots on the power play, and they’re so talented on the bigger rink they’re going to get some opportunities.”
Thanks to seven saves from Lavigne — who stopped 24 of the 27 shots that came his way for the game — Michigan managed to hold on to its slim lead while being outplayed for much of the period. And with under two minutes to go in the period, junior forward Brendan Warren found the net to restore the Wolverines’ lead to two goals.
“Just keeping the pressure on them,” Warren said. “We didn’t want to get back and sit on our heels, we wanted to keep it on the gas pedal. And we got some good saves from Lavigne that really kept us in the game.”
The Gophers wouldn’t go quietly. With 3:38 to play, Lavigne wasn’t able to corral the puck, and Brannon McManus scored off the long rebound. Three minutes later, Minnesota had a golden chance to tie, when a Michigan penalty resulted in a 6-on-4 advantage after the Gophers pulled their goalie.
But that opportunity disintegrated almost as soon as it emerged. After an errant pass, Warren outfought Minnesota’s Steve Johnson to the puck and slid it home into the empty net, sealing the victory.
For much of the game, Minnesota played the fast-breaking, up-and-down style it wanted to. The Wolverines were outshot, 27-19, and committed six penalties — statistics that generally wouldn’t preclude a major road victory. But with a strong focus, urgency and maybe a little bit of good fortune, Michigan did just enough.
“We need to play better,” Pearson said. “We’re going to get a pushback from them tomorrow. They’re a good hockey team… We have to be ready. We have to make sure that we’re more focused, more disciplined, that we play with more pace and speed.”