It’s normal for hockey teams to start a game poorly once in a while, but some situations amplify the resulting worry. Giving up two straight goals at home, turning the puck over all over the ice and getting muscled off the puck — all to Lindenwood, a team playing its third ever Division I game — can certainly fall in that territory.
Thankfully for the No. 7 Michigan hockey team, it found a way to get past those difficulties by playing to its strengths — namely its offensive skills. In the face of imposing physical play, skaters like sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich and senior forward Nick Granowicz leaned into that skill to handle Lindenwood’s unrelenting pressure.
“(Samoskevich) was a little shaken up by it, guys see it and that’s how you set the tone, so that’s what (Lindenwood) did,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “And we’re used to that. Anyone that comes into Michigan, on Friday night especially, they’re trying to take your head off so we gotta fight through that.”
Against the Lions’ aggressive body checking and frustrating stick checks, the Wolverines played the first period entirely away from their identity. And while it was only one game into a brand new season, echoes of last season’s struggles against physical juggernauts like Western Michigan and Notre Dame reverberated off the ice.
But fighting through that difficulty didn’t mean playing down to the Lions’ physical slug match. Built off skill and speed, the Wolverines’ roster simply isn’t built to win those battles. They needed a response that played to what they’ve worked on the past six weeks. They needed to answer on the scoreboard.
They needed to overcome physicality with skill.
And starting with the first minute of the next period, they did that. Samoskevich took the ice after Granowicz’s fourth line wore down Lindenwood’s skaters and with one flick of his wrist, he fired an untouchable laser beam past the goaltender. As he celebrated with his teammates, it felt like the bench breathed one collective sigh of relief.
After that, Michigan put on an offensive firework show. Samoskevich’s goal was more than just the catalyst, though, and it showed Michigan exactly how it had to play against a grinding opponent.
“We kind of just played our style,” sophomore forward Mark Estapa said about the second period. “Our team has a lot of skill, so I guess using that as much as we can, but also doing things that work against any team, which is just getting pucks in deep and going to work.”
Samoskevich and the first line consistently drove deep into the offensive zone all game, setting up dangerous plays through constant movement and crisp passing. But from the second period on, they also went the extra mile to fight for loose pucks and get to the dirty areas of the ice. That space came at a premium — hacks, slashes and uncalled cross checks aplenty — and Lindenwood made them pay full price.
But Michigan’s skaters paid that cost, and it was worth the result. On his second goal, Samoskevich crashed the net hard alongside sophomore forward Dylan Duke and banged home a rebound. Against the fear of getting slammed by a body check like in the first period, Samoskevich remained undeterred. And he wasn’t the only one. The rest of the game, Michigan left no zone unskated and showed off the skilled brand it wants to live by.
Friday’s messy win is only one game — and the first one of the season — but the tone Michigan set is important. Against a blueprint that the Wolverines struggled so mightily against, they played to their own strengths rather than abandoning that for a play style they’re uncomfortable with.
And when they do that, their skill can carry them to victory like it did against Lindenwood.