SOUTH BEND — After the Michigan hockey team was upset by Ohio State on Feb. 19, coach Mel Pearson saw the loss as a result of the teams’ contrasting styles of play.
“It was going to be a grinding game,” Pearson said then. “And we wanted to play a skating skill game. They packed it in.”
Sunday night, in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, the Buckeyes tried to replicate their February success with the same physical, defensive style of play.
This time, though, the No. 6 Wolverines were ready. In a game it dominated nearly from start to finish, Michigan (15-9-1 overall, 12-9 Big Ten) defeated the Buckeyes (7-19-1 overall, 6-17 Big Ten), 4-0, thanks both to its superior skill and its willingness to adapt.
“We just chipped pucks and got in some foot races tonight,” Pearson said. “And our second guy did a better job of getting in to help. I think that was a real key — we played quicker and with a little bit more grease, more grit in their zone.”
Early on, though, Ohio State’s physical approach seemed to be paying dividends. Though Michigan got shots on goal — it out-shot the Buckeyes, 10-5, midway through the first period — most of them came from too far outside to do any damage. Ohio State’s defense simply clogged the middle of the ice, preventing clean looks at the net and shutting down any rebound opportunities in front.
That changed on a Michigan power play late in the first period. With the man advantage, the Wolverines managed to spread the ice and draw the Buckeyes out from in front of the net. That opened up a lane for freshman forward Brendan Brisson, who scored the game’s first goal on a one-timer from sophomore defenseman Cam York.
“It seems like every time we play them, they’re always physical against us,” York said. “Sometimes it works, but we have too much speed and skill that we can kind of maneuver ourselves around them.”
As it carried the lead into the second period, Michigan found that, on top of beating the Buckeyes with its speed, it could find more success trying to out-man Ohio State in front of the net.
That net-front presence created the opportunity for deflections and ultimately resulted in the Wolverines’ second goal. On the outside, freshman forward Kent Johnson dropped the puck to senior forward Luke Morgan trailing behind. With Michigan players camped on each side of the net, Morgan sent the puck in front, where York deflected it in to give the Wolverines a 2-0 lead.
The pressure was now fully on Ohio State.
“It’s good (to take an early lead), because Ohio State has to open up,” Pearson said. “They took some chances — they had to — and we were able to capitalize.”
Three minutes into the third period, that pressure, combined with a poorly timed line change from the Buckeyes, led to a 3-on-1 opportunity for three of Michigan’s forwards. Junior forward Jimmy Lambert beat a pinching Ohio State player at the blue line before sending it across to sophomore forward Nick Granowicz, who dropped it out front for sophomore forward Eric Ciccolini. Ciccolini completed the tic-tac-toe play and extended the Wolverines’ lead to three.
That goal — and a five-minute penalty kill that followed shortly thereafter — was a reminder of what Michigan can look like when it’s at its best. Without a doubt, the Wolverines have left a lot to be desired in other performances against bottom-ranked teams, from February’s loss to the Buckeyes to their more recent tie against Arizona State.
Sunday, though, showed just how scary Michigan can be when it’s firing on all cylinders. Whether it can replicate that performance Monday against Minnesota is its own question, but at the very least, the Wolverines have shown that they’ve moved fully past those blunders earlier in the season.
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