COLUMBUS— Down 1-0 to Ohio State, the season was flashing right before the eyes of the Michigan hockey team.
After two quick penalties at the start of the second period, the Wolverines were faced with the task of killing a 5-on-3 penalty. For a team ranked 28th in the Pairwise, without star defenseman Josh Norris, a win against the No. 4 team in the country would do wonders for their tournament hopes.
But a loss? Almost catastrophic. For all intents and purposes, a backbreaker
With their backs to the wall, against a team that beat them four times last year, the Wolverines did more than fight back.
Michigan killed the penalty, and after junior forward Jake Slaker scored minutes later to tie the game, it never looked back. At the end of the day, Slaker and the Wolverines walked off the ice with a 2-1 win over the Buckeyes.
But everything didn’t start out too rosy. Whether it was sloppy passing or lockdown defense from both parties, the Buckeyes and Wolverines mustered just three shots through the first five minutes of the game
But just under six minutes into the game, Ohio State forward Dakota Joshua found daylight and skated untouched from center ice into the slot. After he folded a pass into the right circle to forward Carson Meyer, Meyer flipped it across the crease to a waiting Freddy Gerard, who nonchalantly pushed the puck in behind junior goaltender Hayden Lavigne’s left pad.
Still, the Wolverines did a good job of stonewalling the Buckeyes’ pressure beyond that. After Ohio State entered the power play because of a tripping penalty on freshman forward Garrett Van Wyhe ten minutes into the first period, Buckeyes forward John Witaila had a chance to capitalize by going straight at Lavigne in the slot.
Lavigne, though, came out and blocked the shot with his pads to stymie the Ohio State power play.
The Buckeyes kept getting multiple favorable offensive opportunities in the latter half of the first period, but Michigan’s defense still held strong. Senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi broke up a 2-on-1 rush by cutting off Ohio State’s passing lane deep in the defensive zone. Minutes later freshman defenseman Nick Blankenburg stopped a 2-on-1 of his own by stealing a puck with his right skate.
“We got pressing a little too much, and we talked about that before the game,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “We just need to play smart and sound defensively and not give them anything early. Let’s settle into the game. For some reason, we got away from that. … We gotta play rock solid defensively like we did the second half of the game.”
When junior forward Nick Pastujov got pushed into the hands of Buckeye goaltender Sean Romeo seven minutes into the second quarter, both he and the Buckeyes initially stood still for a second. But before the junior could turn around, Ohio State forward Tanner Laczynski knocked Pastujov to the ground.
Just as the two teams had traded stifling defense and some gut-punch goals up to that point, the Wolverines and Buckeyes manifested their back-and-forth battle into a physical brawl.
Eventually, that bend-don’t-break mentality turned the tide of the game in the Wolverines’ favor. When senior defenseman Nick Boka and Slaker both got penalized, the Wolverines held on in Ohio State’s 5-on-3 power play. Slaker proceeded to tie the game two minutes later after the penalty, intercepting a Buckeyes pass at the blue line, running untouched to the top right of the offensive zone, and launching a shot over the shoulders of Romeo.
“That was the turning point in the game,” Cecconi said. “They hit the posts and we got some puck luck there, but if they score one or two there, the game changes.”
After the two teams traded punches and more fruitless power plays, junior forward Will Lockwood cleaned up a close-range shot from Pastujov to put the Wolverines up for good.
For the Wolverines, it’s a win worth savoring, and they can hang their heads high knowing that they went on the road and improved their shot at an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. But while they escaped this time with a win, they’ll still have to play like they’re up against it all to continue to stave off disappointment.
“If you could bottle the effort in the victories, you’d be a billionaire,” Pearson said. “You’d sell it to every team just so they make sure your team comes out the same way and as hard every night.”