Following the regular season and conference tournaments, the NCAA deploys PairWise, a mathematical ranking system, to seed its postseason hockey tournament. Facing the defending NCAA National Champions, the No. 6 Michigan hockey team received a prime chance to boost its PairWise rankings entering the second half of the season.
On Sunday, it was clear that the Wolverines understood the stakes. Michigan (16-6-1 overall, 7-5 Big Ten) fired on all cylinders, defeating No. 10 Massachusetts (10-6-2), 4-2, for a pivotal series sweep.
“If you’re a competitor and you’re a player, you want to play in these big games,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “… I thought our players were dialed in, I give them a lot of credit.”
Both teams’ forceful backchecks highlighted much of the first period. Michigan and Massachusetts made plenty of entries into its offensive zones, only to be swarmed by defending skaters who consistently broke up odd-man rushes.
Yet, as the game wore on, the Minutemen’s backcheck weakened while the Wolverines’ held strong. The development ultimately gave Michigan the edge, as crisp passes and clean zone entries dislocated and overwhelmed Massachusetts defenders, guiding the Wolverines to a comfortable 3-0 lead by the end of the second period.
“All week, we did a great job just preparing for what they were going to bring,” senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg said. “At the end of the day, every guy on this team laid it all on the line this weekend. … Everyone played for each other and everyone played the right way.”
Nearly midway through the first period, Portillo corralled a shot from Minutemen forward Ryan Sullivan into his pads, and as Massachusetts skaters whacked at him to dislodge the puck, officials declared the puck frozen and a scuffle ensued.
As referees cleared the scene, the puck sat harmlessly in the middle of the crease. Portillo kept the puck out of harm’s way throughout the contest, totaling 28 saves in another strong showing.
On the other end, with less than a minute left in the first period, the Minutemen made their first costly defensive error.
Sophomore forward Matty Beniers took the puck behind the left post, and Massachusetts goaltender Matt Murray easily poked the difficult-angle shot away with his stick. The puck slid towards a conglomeration of skaters left of the crease, but no one was able to control it as sophomore forward Brendan Brisson skated in from across the ice, snapping it past Murray.
The momentum carried over into the second period, where Massachusetts saw its chances dwindle by the minute.
Michigan dominated the Minutemen’s power play over the first two minutes, and less than four minutes into the period, the Wolverines struck again. Sophomore forward Kent Johnson speedily entered the attacking third without a contest, finding Brisson in the slot. Brisson shifted to his left before finding Beniers on the right side for a raucous one-timer goal.
“I think it was a result of us just working harder than they were,” Beniers said. “They were working really hard, they played a good game, but I think we were just a little bit better than them.”
Throughout the first seven minutes of the second period, the puck practically lived in Michigan’s offensive zone, and the Wolverines seized control of the game. Michigan outshot Massachusetts, 7-3, in that span and didn’t look back.
While the Wolverines remained in command, freshman forward Dylan Duke added insurance. Securing his own rebound following a pad save from Murray, Duke launched the puck over Murray’s right pad for Michigan’s third goal.
A shorthanded goal by Massachusetts forward Bobby Trivigno with six minutes left in the third period couldn’t derail the Wolverines, and junior forward Johnny Beecher’s second empty-net goal of the weekend sealed the deal.
With the Big Ten standings tight and the conference schedule returning to full-swing, Michigan enters its final stretch with much-needed momentum and another signature victory to add to its resume.
“The gang’s all back together,” Pearson said. “… Just really proud of our team.”