Playing right to the advertised “90’s Night” theme at Yost Ice Arena, there was no shortage of old-school physicality from the opening puck drop Friday night. Hard checks were applied on seemingly every shift, elevated pushing and shoving was added to scrums behind the net and a plethora of extracurricular activity was supplemented after the whistle.
On a night where a combined 24 penalties were assessed — amounting to 48 penalty minutes — the No. 20 Michigan hockey team found itself on both sides of special teams.
And on both ends of the ice, the Wolverines (8-9-2-1 Big Ten, 13-12-2 overall) controlled the pace of play, scoring two goals with the man advantage and stifling a scoring-hungry Wisconsin offense on the penalty kill. Despite a late-game scare, this dominance on special teams would lead Michigan to a 5-3 victory over the 18th-ranked Badgers (7-9-3-1, 13-13-4) in the series opener.
“Good win,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “I didn’t like the finish, but sometimes they don’t ask you how, they ask you how many. … As a coach, you go in there and outline the things you’ve got to do in the third period when you have a 4-1 lead and you try to do those. I thought we’d get away from those (penalties). But until we do, we’re going to hold on for our dear lives in games like this, against good teams.
“We held on, let’s be honest about it. But at the same time, when we play, we’re pretty good.”
Coming out of the gates, both teams played with a high energy level, with crisp passing to enter the offensive zone and solid stick-checking to mute any attacks from developing in between the blue lines.
Less than four minutes into the game, the Badgers unleashed a flurry of shots at the net, the first two stopped by sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne. But the rebound wasn’t corralled, and the third time was the charm for Wisconsin. Forward Trent Frederic’s wrist shot from between the circles beat Lavigne glove-side to put the Badgers on the board first.
Nineteen seconds after the Wisconsin tally, a scrum in the corner escalated to an all-out brawl, with the punches and cross-checks thrown resulting in a combined six penalties levied. Through just the first period, 12 penalties were given to both teams, an area of the game both players and coaches agreed needed to be controlled.
“It’s an emotional game, it’s a physical game,” said sophomore forward Jake Slaker. “I think we got away from our game tonight. We took way too many penalties and I think it’s unacceptable on our part. I had six penalty minutes, which is unacceptable, being a leader. I think we just have to keep our cool on the emotional point of the game and just stick to what we’re doing.”
In the minutes following the opening goal, the Badgers gained the momentum and began to outplay the Wolverines. A roughing penalty to junior forward Brendan Warren led to the first Wisconsin power play of the night.
Despite the subsequent shot onslaught, Lavigne remained relaxed in goal, tracking deflections in front of the net and making key saves to keep the deficit to one. He would finish with a total 37 saves on 40 shots to get his ninth win of the season, in a game Pearson believed the team relied too heavily on the netminder.
Coming into the weekend, Michigan ranked sixth-worst in the country with a meager 76.24-percent success rate on the penalty kill. However, the Wolverines held the Badgers 1-for-7 on the power play.
With 20 seconds left on the Wisconsin power play, freshman forward Dakota Raabe forced a turnover in the Badgers defensive zone. To prevent a possible shorthanded goal, Wisconsin committed a tripping penalty and squashed its own chances on the man advantage.
On the ensuing Michigan power play, junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi walked into the zone and fired a wrist shot from the left circle that found the back of the net, tying the game at one apiece.
Mere seconds after the Cecconi goal, the Badgers were handed another penalty, this time for boarding. Though able to get quality shots on net, goaltender Jack Berry’s strong presence in between the pipes kept the game tied.
But as the power play expired, a puck along the boards found its way to the stick of forward Cooper Marody. The junior — who has been unusually dormant on the stat sheet the past four games — calmly flicked a shot past Berry to give the Wolverines a 2-1 lead.
Minutes later, Michigan would again capitalize with the extra man after another Wisconsin roughing penalty. With 2:53 remaining in the first period, sophomore defenseman Luke Martin found Slaker right in front of the net. The sophomore backhanded the puck through the five-hole of Berry for the Wolverines’ third unanswered goal.
After entering the weekend with the nation’s 13th-worst power play — converting a dismal 15 percent of its chances — Michigan had scored two goals with five-on-four play to take the lead heading into the first intermission.
“It’s always tough, the power plays,” Slaker said. “… We’ve gone through some highs and lows in the power play this year. You know it hasn’t been our strongest aspect of the game, but it showed up big for us tonight. And it shows we’re working hard in practice and sticking to details for that.”
The second period began with back-and-forth play, with neither team stimulating many scoring opportunities. Though there were another six penalties in the stanza, both squads’ penalty kill units regularly cleared the puck to thwart another goal for either side. The Badgers outshot the Wolverines, 13-9, in the period, totaling to a 25-19 shot advantage for the visitors through two.
But with 5:17 left in the period, freshman forward Jack Becker skated around a defender and between another two red sweaters, finding himself an opening. Becker unloaded a wrist shot past the stick of an obstructed Berry — who was shaded by heavy traffic in front of the net — to add another insurance goal for Michigan to end the frame.
A little over eight minutes into the third period, a turnover in the neutral zone by freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes caused a two-on-one rush for Wisconsin. Seconds later, forward Ryan Wagner rifled a shot by Lavigne to cut the Wolverine lead to two.
With 4:16 left in the final period, the Badgers would finally strike on the power play. Following a high sticking penalty to freshman forward Michael Pastujov and an added extra attacker, Wagner connected on a one-timer off a cross-ice pass to tack on his second goal of the game and get Wisconsin within one.
With time dwindling down, the surging Badgers kept the pressure on Lavigne and the Michigan defense, leaving their goaltender pulled with over two minutes remaining in regulation. But the Wolverines stood tall against the extra man and with one minute left, Raabe laid the puck into an empty net to seal the victory.
Though Michigan had success on special teams and snuck away with the win, Pearson is determined to return to a concentrated mindset and not let a team like Wisconsin make it interesting late in a game again.
“We have to stick to our game plan and play with our poise and patience,” Pearson said. “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. Sometimes when you get up, you can either relax and get away from your game and I thought we did too much of that.
“But big win, it’s gives us a chance to have a heck of a weekend.”