With just under five minutes left in the third period, the Michigan hockey team was down, 2-1, in a game mainly controlled by Vermont. The Wolverines needed something — or someone — to jumpstart its lackluster offense Saturday night.
That someone was sophomore forward Jake Slaker.
As time expired on Michigan’s fourth unsuccessful power play of the game, the left winger skated through the right circle and unloaded a wrist shot that found the back of the net, tying the game at two and keeping the Wolverines’ hopes of a weekend sweep alive.
Then, with just 54 seconds left in regulation, Slaker delivered again from almost the same spot — scoring his second goal in as many shots to give Michigan (3-1) the lead and the game.
Following a dominant 4-1 victory in Friday’s home opener, the Wolverines were seemingly outplayed in all three periods, but still came away with a 3-2 victory against Vermont (2-4) to sweep their first home series of the season.
“I thought they had a few very good scoring opportunities and (sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne) came up big,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “And then we went down and scored. There’s going to be some things on the tape that we don’t like, but nonetheless a big win — and a character win — for our team.”
The first period began with scrappy play, as neither team was able to maintain puck possession or display life in its offense. With under eight minutes left in the opening stanza, Michigan had a power play and a chance to finally break the deadlock.
But after going 0-for-5 with a man advantage in Friday’s contest, the Wolverines’ struggles on the power play continued. Michigan turned the puck over in the defensive zone, gifting Vermont with a shorthanded goal and a one-goal lead. They would end the game going 0-for-4 on the power play and being unable to convert on special teams, an important aspect of the game Pearson has continuously stressed throughout the beginning of the season.
With less than two minutes to go in the first period, the Wolverines broke through when sophomore center Adam Winborg stuffed the puck under Vermont netminder Stefanos Lekkas’ glove for a wraparound goal. Despite not finding any rhythm in the offensive zone most of the period, the equalizer proved to be the final goal before the first intermission.
Michigan tried to sustain their momentum from Winborg’s goal coming out of the dressing room — starting to get the puck to the net and seeing more quality shots on goal from the likes of freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes and sophomore forward Will Lockwood.
Nonetheless, an ensuing Catamount power play halfway through the second period stifled any energy the Wolverines had mustered. For the second time on special teams — this time with a man up instead of down — Vermont capitalized off a loose rebound and placed it past Lavigne to regain the lead.
Michigan continued to get to the front of the net, but couldn’t get sticks on the bouncing pucks to convert on scoring chances — much to the displeasure of the Wolverine faithful in attendance. After vastly outshooting the Catamounts 45 to 16 the previous night, Michigan couldn’t do the same twice, with both teams posting 30 shots on goal apiece.
But the Wolverines continued to stick to their game plan and got traffic to the net, something Pearson finds crucial to success and a mindset his team has adopted from him.
“Some nights it doesn’t turn out for you, but you have to keep focused and continue to play how you need to play to have success,” Pearson said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things, and tonight they got rewarded for that. Maybe it wasn’t our best game, but we stayed with it.”
Added Slaker: “I think there’s always going to be ups and downs in the game, so I think we just try to stay even keel all the time. Never get too high on our highs, never get too low on our lows. Overall, we just try to stay focused and it doesn’t matter if they score within the first five minutes or in the first 20, we still have 40 minutes left to play after that. … We just keep playing our game.”
The third period began with more of the same, as Vermont looked as if it would squash any possible comeback for the Wolverines. But instead, Lavigne — who is competing with sophomore goaltender Jack LaFontaine for the starting netminder position — recorded 28 saves, keeping Michigan in the matchup until Slaker’s heroics.
“I thought overall in the third period, we just kept at it when we were down,” Slaker said. “And when it came down to the last four or five minutes, we ended up finding a win, and I thought we deserved (it) by that point.”
Pearson credits Slaker’s dynamic style of play for his late-game success, as he believes the sophomore is an all-around player the team can rely on in pressure situations.
“You see what Jake’s all about, he can play any way you want,” Pearson said. “He can play a skill game, he can play a physical game, he can play a skating game — he’s got it all. He’s one of our hardest workers in practice and in games, so it was nice for him to get rewarded.”