On March 7, the Michigan hockey players left a full Yost Ice Arena and stepped into a world ready to catch fire. COVID-19 was in the back of everybody’s minds, but the team had no idea about the 251 days of chaos that would come before their next hockey game. Nobody did.
On the 252nd day, the world is still burning. Practically every inch of the continental United States is a COVID hotspot.
But for a few hours, hockey.
The Wolverines beat Arizona State, 8-1, in a game that felt utterly inconceivable just a few short months ago. Emerging from the weeks of daily testing, socially-distanced dressing rooms and masked practices was a Michigan team that operated as if play had never paused.
“It’s been a long time since we played, and it’s been a long time for anybody, quite frankly,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “But I was pleased overall with our conditioning, first and foremost. I thought we held up well as the game went on.”
It would have been reasonable to wonder if the Wolverines — who dressed eight freshmen and were opening the season against the No. 15 team in the country — would have to work through some early mistakes to pick up the win.
But they didn’t. The offense ran like a well-oiled machine, and the freshmen were instrumental in that effort. Three of Michigan’s eight goals — including the opener from forward Matty Beniers — were scored by freshmen, including a second by Beniers and one from defenseman Owen Power.
Each of the freshmen played a key role in the offense’s smooth and consistent puck movement. Forwards Thomas Bordeleau and Brendan Brisson each tallied an assist, while Kent Johnson added four and Power notched two.
“Because we’ve been so good with COVID and the off-ice things, we’ve been able to practice for a really long time,” Beniers said. “And that's allowed us to get on the ice as a full team on lines and really get that chemistry going.”
In addition to Power, the rest of the defense also worked to get involved in the offensive zone. Sophomore and junior defensemen Cam York and Nick Blankenburg each added a goal, and their activity on offense helped the Wolverines rotate the puck and draw the Sun Devils’ defense out of position.
“It was something we worked on in practice a lot,” York said. “Which is, joining the rush, the strongside D pinching and having our third forward come and replace us. … We’re comfortable jumping up into the rush and being offensive, because we know that we’re going to have back up.”
With that consistent control in the offensive end, Michigan maintained a firm hold throughout the game. In the only moment where it looked like the Wolverines weren’t in complete control — a Sun Devils power-play midway through the second period, when the Wolverines were already up 4-0 — junior goaltender Strauss Mann stepped up and denied an Arizona State one-timer. Moments later, York scored and removed any doubt.
Still, there were a couple moments where Michigan’s youth showed. The penalty-killing unit was called on seven times on the night, and it ceded the Sun Devils’ lone goal late in the third period. Three of those penalties came from freshmen — including a pair of back-to-back calls against Brisson midway through the third.
At the same time, penalties don’t matter as much when a team scores eight goals. After 251 days of inactivity, the Wolverines arrived at Yost looking as calm and prepared as they could have hoped for.
“I think the energy was high for us,” Beniers said. “ … We executed well, and we were able to put away a couple, which was good. I think everyone’s just happy to be out there and happy to be back on the ice.”