It wasn’t supposed to be easy, but Johnny Beecher made it look effortless.
In the final minutes of the second period on Saturday night, the freshman forward got the puck way back in the defensive zone, then took the game into his own hands. He raced down the left side and perfectly weaved through two opponents to get to the slot. Beecher didn’t take the one-on-one shot against goaltender John Lethemon — instead, he dashed wide past the right post.
The offensive burst looked like it might be over, and yet the way he attacked the net was enough to create awe by itself. But after skating past the net, Beecher went around the right circle and fired a shot into the bottom right corner of the net.
That goal put the Michigan hockey team (18-14-4 overall, 12-10-3-2 Big Ten) up by two and fueled the Wolverines to a 3-0 win over Michigan State (15-19-2, 11-12-2), Saturday night at Yost Ice Arena. And with the victory, a Michigan team once left for dead advanced to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
“From where we were in December to where we are now, this team has shown tremendous growth,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “They’ve hung in there. We were 0-6-1 in the Big Ten at one point. It’s been well documented. … It’s a tremendous credit to the young men that we have in that locker room. Good for them. I’m really proud of that for them.”
The Wolverines knew ahead of time it could be tough playing an opponent who’s on the brink of elimination. And it was challenging at the start. Following the Spartans’ limited offensive production Friday night, they showed more urgency on the attack from the moment Saturday’s game started.
“I don’t think we had a lot of energy from the get-go,” Pearson said. “It was a struggle to start. We knew it would be. Anytime you’re facing elimination, you’re gonna get the other team’s best effort. I thought they played hard and we hung in there.”
After a tense, scoreless opening period Michigan got on the board early in the second while on the power play. Sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg and senior forward Jake Slaker passed back and forth from the high slot to the right circle. Blankenburg finally rifled a shot toward Lethemon, and senior forward Will Lockwood tipped it on its way to the back of the net.
That first goal was critical, but it wasn’t until Beecher’s that the Wolverines got breathing room.
“I think we just came out strong and did the little things right,” Beecher said of the pivotal second period. “I think we weren’t extremely happy with our first period and we knew the things that we needed to work on. Obviously, getting those two goals is massive and that gave us the momentum for the rest of the game.”
Michigan’s defense faced increased pressure to start the game, until just under four minutes in when forward Brody Stevens went to the box for interference. The Wolverines created solid chances with the extra man.
At one point, Lockwood took a shot from the left side. The shot was blocked, but fell right by the crease. Senior forward Jacob Hayhurst immediately reached out to try and swipe it into the empty right side of the net. But his stick met the defender’s square on to keep the game scoreless.
Michigan’s special teams couldn’t convert on the rest of the opening power play. The Wolverines went on the penalty kill twice in the first frame, too, but defended them successfully. Michigan State established good puck movement on both attempts, but Michigan’s players managed to cut off the shooting lanes.
The Wolverines’ defense stayed staunch the rest of the game as well, killing a third, and final, penalty. With the stellar performance, the Spartans have scored just two goals on Mann in the last four meetings combined — all of them Michigan wins.
“Defense wins championships, they say,” Pearson said. “So if we don’t give up any goals, we’ve got a pretty good chance to win some hockey games.”
Once the offense found its groove in the second period it was Michigan’s game to lose. And in the final minute of the game, Slaker wrapped it up with an empty-net goal to send his team cruising into a semifinal at Ohio State. Such an outcome would’ve seemed unfathomable just a few months back.
“I think in the beginning of the season guys were pretty down,” Beecher said. “Obviously nobody was happy with what was going on. But I think the biggest thing is guys kind of realized that if we really buy in and come together as a team then we can do something special.”