Things were going swimmingly for the Michigan ice hockey team.
After scoring two power-play goals in the first period to jump out to an early lead, the Wolverines had killed four penalties in the second period to preserve their lead.
But hockey is a fast-paced game. The game can turn in an instant, and when Wisconsin scored on its fifth power play of the period, the Badgers looked to have captured the momentum.
Perhaps that shouldn’t have been the case in the first place: The Wolverine penalty kill, sterling up until that point, had allowed the goal on a 4-on-2 Badger rush that only materialized after Badger goalie Jack Berry tripped Jake Slaker. Then, less than a minute later, freshman goaltender Hayden Lavigne took an ill-advised roughing penalty when he knocked over Wisconsin’s Seamus Malone in front of the net to the delight of the crowd.
Michigan was on its heels. And given the Wolverines’ performance this year, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see them cough up the lead. After all, they had done just that the night before.
But Michigan didn’t let its late second period misfortunes affect it. The players returned to the ice for the final period, calmly killed the remainder of Lavigne’s penalty and held on to win the game, 4-1.
“We were a desperate team tonight,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We had to play hard, and we had to play better. Getting the first goal of the game was important, and the second goal, and then I thought the wheels started to come off with the penalties. … Our penalty-killers did a great job and our goalie did a great job in keeping the score down.”
“Those are the kind of games that we’re going to have to play in to win games this year. We’re not going to outscore the other team by five and six goals. Last year is over, and our team has to learn that. We can’t take those kind of penalties and expect to win games.”
It was an impressive bounce-back game for the Wolverines, who had collapsed Friday night in a 7-4 loss that might’ve been their worst of the early season. Michigan had taken an early two-goal lead only to give up three straight and a total of five in the second period to the Badgers. The tone was somber after the game, as Michigan coach Red Berenson and junior defenseman Sam Piazza tried to explain what had happened.
Whatever conversations took place between them must have had an effect. Michigan was sharp from the opening puck-drop, scoring two quick goals. Senior forward Alex Kile scored his first goal since late October off a feed from freshman forward Jake Slaker on a Wolverine power play. A little over a minute later, junior forward Cutler Martin sniped one past Berry for his third goal in as many games, giving his team a 2-0 lead.
After the tumultuous end to the second period, Michigan dealt with a couple more bad breaks at the end of the third. Will Lockwood appeared to be badly injured by a Wisconsin check, leaving immediately for the locker room while grabbing his shoulder, before Dexter Dancs was called for slashing to the consternation of the Michigan bench.
But the Wolverines stood tall once more, killing the penalty even as Wisconsin pulled Berry to take a two-man advantage, and Tony Calderone and Adam Winborg sealed the win with late empty-net goals.
For Michigan, the win ended a three-game losing streak to open conference play, and as the final horn sounded, the Wolverines celebrated heartily as the band played them off the ice with the fight song.
It was a similar scene to a month ago, when Michigan beat then-No. 4 Boston University in front of a raucous crowd. With that win, the Wolverines appeared to be on their way to turning a corner after an uninspiring start.
As Michigan enters a short break before the Great Lakes Invitational, it remains unknown whether Saturday’s win will change the course of the season.
“I think the core of the team really needs to have a message that resonates with every player,” Martin said. “… I think as we leave, every player needs to search themselves a little bit and know their role, what they have to do for the second half of the season, coming back and being ready to play, being a true Michigan hockey team and being winners.”
Added Lavigne: “We’re not a typical team like last year where they were all skill. It’s going to come as we win games like that where we just work hard, and we keep finding out that we get rewarded for working that hard. It’s going to continue to improve in our consistency.”