MINNEAPOLIS — The Michigan hockey team came to Minneapolis looking for retribution.
And the seventh-ranked Wolverines (11-8 Big Ten, 14-18-1 overall) found it on Friday night with a decisive 5-2 win over No. 3 Minnesota (15-6, 19-6).
Last times the two teams met, they stood neck-and-neck in the rankings. The Golden Gophers sat at No. 4 with the Wolverines close behind at No. 5. However, their first two games didn’t look like closely-contested battles, instead they looked more like a No. 1 team taking a No. 10 team for a ride. Minnesota left Ann Arbor in mid-December still undefeated, while Michigan was left wondering how it held an even, 5-5 record.
Part of that is because Michigan was missing some of its most dominant players — freshman forwards Matty Beniers, Thomas Bordeleau and Brendan Brisson as well as sophomore forward Johnny Beecher and sophomore defenseman Cam York — to World Juniors. The other part of the issue was the Wolverines’ inability to stay out of the penalty box.
One of those things has changed and the other hasn’t. Michigan has its players back, minus Beecher who will be out of the rest of the season with an injury. But, less than two minutes into Friday’s game, it was clear the Wolverines hadn’t addressed its penalty problem.
Michigan wracked up two hooking penalties within a minute and a half, meaning the Wolverines were killing penalties for almost four of the first six minutes of the game. After so much time on defense, they struggled to adjust, allowing the Gophers to dictate the game early on and dominate shots on goal in the first period.
Michigan got a power play of its own midway through the period, but missed passes and mishandled pucks meant it failed to convert, only registering one shot on goal in the process.
When a second power play came minutes later, the Wolverines didn’t make the same mistake. Seconds into the man advantage, York sent a puck into traffic. As it bounced in front of the goal, Bordeleau saw an opportunity, sliding it between defenders and sending it to the back of the net.
The Gophers outshot Michigan 16-to-5 in the first period, but ultimately, it was the Wolverines who made it on the board first.
While freshman forward Kent Johnson said the difference in shot totals didn’t affect the team’s momentum, Michigan looked much more ready by the start of the second period.
The Gophers continued to produce solid shots on junior goaltender Strauss Mann, though the Wolverines limited their opportunities considerably through the period. By the end of the night, Mann made 28 saves.
“Just in cause there’s any doubt about who the first star of tonight’s game was, … it’s Strauss Mann,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “He was maybe the first, second and the third star.”
Despite Mann’s best efforts, Minnesota didn’t stay scoreless forever. The Gophers tied the score midway through the period. With his 28 saves on the night, Minnesota likely would have scored much sooner without Mann between the pipes.
Michigan returned the favor soon after. With skaters from both teams crowded in front of the net, the Wolverines sent the puck back again and again, trying to find a lucky bounce. Johnson finally got the job with a shot goaltender Jack LaFontaine couldn’t deflect, giving Michigan back a one-goal lead.
“We got some bounces,” Pearson said. “But we worked for it. We earned it.”
With less than a minute remaining in the period, Beniers found junior defenseman Jack Summers on the right circle. Summers put his knee to the ice for a one-timer that extended Michigan’s lead to two.
The four players who were absent in the first series made an impact time and time again on Friday night, combining for two goals and five assists on the game.
The Gophers fired a shot from the right circle, momentarily biting into the Wolverines’ lead, but Michigan stopped the momentum in its tracks with a goal from sophomore forward Nick Granowicz, solidifying the revenge-victory Michigan was looking for.
“So much is on the line (toward the end of the season),” Mann said. “And at the end of the day, it starts to become which team wants it more.
“And tonight, I think that was us.”