DETROIT — Friday night’s contest between the Michigan hockey team and Michigan State could have been described as meaningless.
And perhaps that still holds true. The game at Joe Louis Arena featured two teams that have been struggling to climb out of the Big Ten cellar for the better part of a season. The Wolverines (2-7-3 Big Ten, 9-13-3 overall) entered the night coming off a split against No. 12 Ohio State — a 6-5 loss last Saturday had left Michigan and its coach Red Berenson with a bad taste in their mouths after a blown two-goal lead. Meanwhile, the Spartans (1-8-2, 5-17-3) have been mired in a four year NCAA Tournament-less streak as coach Tom Anastos has struggled to rebuild his program.
But ask any of the coaches or players on either team — and the 17,000-plus people that attended the game — and they would have said the game still had plenty of meaning.
On Friday night, context went out the window as the Wolverines topped Michigan State in a 5-4 shootout win to claim the Iron D trophy. In the third consecutive overtime game at the Joe between the two rivals, neither team could gain the upper hand in the extra period and things headed to a shootout. After several misses from each team, junior defenseman Sam Piazza scored on his attempt, Michigan State’s Logan Lambdin missed his chance, and the Michigan bench streamed onto the ice in celebration.
As the season draws to a close, though, and the path back to the NCAA Tournament grows longer with each loss or tie, Berenson and the Wolverines could not help but feel as though they had missed a crucial chance.
“We needed more than that,” Berenson said. “We’re not feeling like we won the game. We’re feeling like we could’ve won the game, but we didn’t. We got the extra point but that’s it, so we can’t be happy with that.”
Play may have been sloppy at times. There may not have been a top-16 PairWise Ranking — or high conference ranking — at risk. Yet for two teams that have fallen on hard times, the battle at Joe Louis was simply evidence that the rivalry has not diminished, even if the on-ice product has. There were the usual big hits, the usual post-whistle scrums and a back-and-forth game that captivated a large crowd.
“Playing Michigan State, you always have a little bit more energy, a little bit more oomph to your game,” said freshman forward Jake Slaker. “Everybody gets a little bit more excited to play Michigan State, so I think we definitely brought it tonight and it’s going to be another big one tomorrow and a big battle.”
Added senior defenseman Nolan De Jong: “(The trophy) was very heavy. But it definitely felt good. I think, last year we obviously had a really good season, but losing the Iron D was definitely something that we had in the back of our minds, because State kind of made it look like they won the Stanley Cup last year when they won it. So to come here and kind of just win it, and kind of show that we’re not just going to back down. This is Michigan.”
For Michigan, a team that has often struggled to sustain fast starts, Friday’s win bucked the trend. Just 36 seconds into the opening period, Spartan forward Taro Hiroshi beat freshman goaltender Hayden Lavigne to give Michigan State an early one-goal lead. Then, shortly after, both junior forward Cutler Martin and freshman defenseman Luke Martin were called for penalties, giving the Spartans a 5-on-3 opportunity that they quickly capitalized on.
It didn’t take long for the Wolverines, though, to mount a comeback attempt. With just over five minutes left in the opening period, freshman forward Jake Slaker continued a recent hot streak by scoring from a difficult angle off a rebound, and with 28 seconds left, senior forward Max Shuart tied the game with another rebound goal.
Play slowed down for the early part of the second period after Michigan State switched goaltenders, before each team traded goals. After Michigan State’s Chris Knudson gave his team a 3-2 lead, senior defenseman Nolan De Jong scored just the third goal of his career with a snipe past Spartan goaltender John Lethemon during a power play.
De Jong added another goal in the third period, doubling his career total in one night, to give Michigan its first lead of the night. But with just 4:58 remaining — after Lavigne and the Wolverines had weathered several Michigan State offensive surges — Spartan forward Sam Saliba lit the lamp for his second goal of the night, deadlocking the game once again.
The chances and tension mounted as time ticked down. Each team had opportunities to take the lead late in regulation, as players flew across the ice to chase down loose pucks while large swathes of the crowd stood in anticipation. And when Piazza scored the deciding goal in the shootout and Lambdin’s attempt went wide, the Wolverines took to the ice, and the crowd erupted for one final time, appreciative of the seemingly vintage show that it had just witnessed.