DETROIT, Mich. — Over the last two months, Hayden Lavigne has asserted himself as Michigan’s starting goaltender, and has often had to stand on his head to bail out his team.
Saturday night, it was Joseph Cecconi’s turn.
With under three minutes to play and the Wolverines leading Michigan State, 3-2, Spartan forward Cody Milan jumped on a rebound after two Lavigne saves and sent the puck towards the net with the sophomore goaltender out of position.
In Lavigne’s place, however, was Cecconi, who caught the puck with his right hand just before it could cross the plane, tossing it out of the crease as he fell to prevent a penalty.
“I’ve had maybe one or two of those but that was probably the best one,” Cecconi said. “… Once I saw the replay I knew that it wasn’t a goal.”
The ensuing official review proved the junior defenseman correct, and Cecconi’s heads-up play allowed Michigan (9-10-3 Big Ten, 14-13-3 overall) to escape with the Iron D Trophy and a 3-2 victory over Michigan State (4-14-2, 10-18-2) at Little Caesars Arena on Saturday night.
The game’s early going seemed to hint at a higher-scoring game than Friday night’s 1-1 tie in East Lansing. Five minutes in, sophomore defenseman Griffin Luce boomed a shot from the point that bounced off John Lethemon’s pads and to senior forward Tony Calderone just outside the left post. When the Spartan goaltender came over to defend him, Calderone dumped an easy pass into the crease, and junior forward Cooper Marody rushed in to finish off the tap-in.
And then Michigan went cold.
Fifteen first period shots amounted to only one goal. The first 11 of the second begot even less. The Wolverines were given a break, however, when Spartan forward Mitchell Lewandowski shoved junior forward Brendan Warren into the boards, earning himself a disqualification and his team a five-minute major penalty.
Four minutes and 50 seconds later, Michigan still had nothing to show for it. But then, sophomore forward Adam Winborg gathered the puck behind the Michigan State net and set up for a wraparound attempt.
Lethemon stuffed his first shot. Ditto for the second. But the third time proved to be the charm, as freshman forward Jack Becker got to the rebound and put it past the Spartan goaltender for a 2-0 lead, giving Michigan crucial breathing room going into the final period.
It would need all of it. Michigan State forward Taro Hirose scored directly off a faceoff right after the third period began. After freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes slipped home a close-range finish off a pinpoint cross-ice pass from Cecconi with five minutes to play, the Spartans answered right back when Patrick Khodorenko snuck a pass under a Wolverine stick and to David Keefer, who halved the Michigan State deficit.
And in the end, it came down to an unlikely save from an unlikely source.
“I couldn’t watch the last two minutes,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “We have to get better. We have to learn how to play with a lead. When you’re (up) 2-0 — faceoff goal, bang, now you’ve got a game. We get 3-1, that should have been it. They should not get another Grade-A opportunity after that. And we’ve got to understand that we’ve got to learn to play in tight games with a lead when there’s a lot on the line.”
The Spartans outshot Michigan, 34-33, including a 12-5 margin in the crucial third period. Skirmishes broke out frequently, and missed opportunities were routine. By any measure, this was not the Wolverines’ prettiest performance.
Perhaps Cecconi’s game-saving play was most emblematic of that.