WORCESTER, Mass. — After being held frustrated and scoreless by Cayden Primeau and the Northeastern defense for seemingly an eternity, the Michigan hockey team finally broke through 15 minutes into the second period, when junior forward Cooper Marody rifled the puck through the Husky goaltender’s five-hole.
Then, the hard part began.
The Wolverines’ ability to play with a lead, to maintain a calm, composed attitude and style of play under pressure, has served as a bellwether for this team’s overall progress this season.
At first this year, Michigan struggled to get a lead at all. It played what coach Mel Pearson called “heart-attack hockey” throughout the season’s first half, most notably in consecutive games against Minnesota in which it came back from separate 3-0 and 4-0 deficits to take four points from the Golden Gophers.
The Wolverines then found their stride in January and February with four straight wins against Minnesota and Penn State. Not all was well, however. Michigan showed off its quick-start ability during this time, but still would find itself sweating out the final minutes of games, as self-inflicted wounds and mistakes borne from desperation plagued the Wolverines down the stretch.
On Jan. 20, Michigan led the Nittany Lions, 3-0, with two minutes to play. But in just 64 seconds, Penn State scored twice, and the Wolverines had to block three shots in the final minute to hold on.
Two weeks later, Michigan took another three-goal lead, this time against Wisconsin — only to see the Badgers take advantage of a slew of late Wolverine turnovers and penalties to cut the deficit to one. Freshman forward Dakota Raabe’s empty-net clincher did nothing to soothe Pearson’s mood after the game.
“We’ve gotta understand that we have to stick to our game plan, we have to play with that poise and patience,” he said after Michigan’s 5-3 win. “We have to learn how to play with a lead and do the things that got us that lead, and I thought we got away from that.”
The next week, it was déjà vu all over again, as junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi’s desperate goal-line clearance just barely allowed the Wolverines to escape the ignominious fate of blowing a two-goal lead to Michigan State with under five minutes to play.
“I couldn’t watch the last two minutes,” Pearson said at that time. “… We have to learn how to play with a lead. When you’re (up) 2-0 — faceoff goal, bang, now you’ve got a game. We get 3-1, that should have been it.”
Pearson never explicitly stated it, but he constantly hinted at an explanation for Michigan’s shakiness under pressure. Inexperience — upperclassmen adjusting to a new system of hockey, underclassmen adjusting to a new level of hockey — was the primary culprit. There was no easy fix, just players continuing to acclimate to their situation.
It’s been a slow process indeed. But when the Wolverines took their first lead on Saturday, it was clear that tangible process had been made.
“For the most part we did a good job (playing with a lead),” Pearson said Saturday. “We played with a lead all game, we were never behind and I thought that was really good.”
Three minutes after Marody’s tally, when Huskies forward Dylan Sikura beat Lavigne on a power play. With just two minutes before the end of the second period, Sikura’s snipe had the potential to be a brick wall in the face of Michigan’s momentum with intermission looming. Maybe two months ago, the Wolverines would have collapsed in such a situation.
That couldn’t have been farther from what actually happened. Senior forward Dexter Dancs did some heavy lifting down the right flank, snapping a shot above Primeau’s glove five minutes into the third period after Lavigne staved off four solid Husky opportunities. The same scenario played out again ten minutes later — after Eric Williams’ garbage goal in front of the net to tie the game, Marody slid home a pinpoint centering pass from senior forward Tony Calderone to put Michigan ahead, 3-2.
“It’s about the last shift after a goal that can change momentum,” Pearson said. “It was good we got in the locker room, we got settled down, I thought we had a good period after that… We just did not give them a whole lot of grade-A opportunities.”
As the Wolverines’ upperclassmen provided the offensive output against Northeastern, the third-youngest team in the nation also showed its growth on the defensive end. While Michigan’s defenders were at times too willing to simply dump the puck into the Husky zone instead of staying aggressive, Pearson still commended his young blueliners for their efforts — after Williams brought Northeastern to a 2-2 tie, the Huskies managed only one shot on goal, and took just 21 for the entire game — nine below their season average.
“We had a lot of players step up,” Pearson said. “I thought (sophomore defenseman) Luke Martin had a heck of a hockey game. He’s fought some things lately, but (sophomore defenseman) Griffin Luce, (junior defenseman Nicholas) Boka, I thought some guys really stepped up. … Tonight, for the most part, I thought we did a great job and limited them in the opportunities they had.”
With 20 seconds remaining, Boka iced the puck. Northeastern won the ensuing face-off, but could do nothing with it and freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes got to the puck and sent it deep down the boards, salting away the game’s final seconds.
During the final minutes, an emotion noticeably absent from Pearson, the Wolverines or their fans made a welcome appearance in a situation where it didn’t for much of the season: calmness.
And if Saturday is indicative of anything, maybe it will stick around.