Without its two leading scorers in sophomore forward Kent Johnson and sophomore defenseman Owen Power because of national team duties, the Michigan hockey team had a major hole in its roster going into Friday’s game.
That hole only grew after the Wolverines lost sophomore defenseman Steve Holtz to an upper body injury and junior defenseman Jay Keranen to an ejection.
Despite that short bench, No. 3 Michigan (14-5 overall, 7-4 Big Ten) crawled to a 5-2 victory over Ohio State (9-5, 5-4). The Wolverines leaned on sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo to make timely saves behind an overworked defense.
“I just couldn’t be more proud of the effort and the commitment and the blocking shots and just everything that they put into this game,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I don’t know if I’ve been more proud of a group of young men.”
From the puck drop, the Wolverines thrived with the puck on their sticks early. Throwing the puck deep and outpacing the Buckeyes’ defense, they quickly earned a power play.
It took just a few seconds before senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg capitalized, beating his man to the puck and chipping it past Ohio State goaltender Jakub Dobeš. Those early starts also paid off in the second period, as senior forward Nolan Moyle shoveled a loose puck under the pads of Dobeš just 37 seconds in.
But the Buckeyes’ physicality put them right back in the game. Their punishing hits caused quick decisions by the Wolverines that led to high-pressure scoring opportunities — especially with Michigan’s shuffled defensive pairs creating unfamiliar duos in tough situations.
“Sometimes if you get hemmed in your zone, it can be difficult for the next shift — especially with five (defensemen),” Blankenburg said. “But (it was) just another challenge that we accepted and a little bit of adversity that brought us together and made us a stronger unit tonight.”
The Buckeyes also got under Michigan’s skin, forcing undisciplined penalties. Freshman forward Mark Estapa took a penalty for leaving his feet in the first, and Ohio State tied the game on the ensuing power play. They also got numerous cracks at the net in the second period after Keranen took a game misconduct for making head contact on a hit. Michigan killed off the five-minute penalty, but not before the Buckeyes peppered Portillo with shots.
In the face of a heavy-hitting attack, the Wolverines leaned on their stick work to win the puck. Instead of racing toward the puck and taking a heavy hit, skaters would chip the puck to the side and dance around the Buckeyes’ forecheckers. All Ohio State could hit were the empty boards.
That agility created shorthanded chances when Michigan killed the Keranen major. Fifth-year senior forward Michael Pastujov sprinted down the ice to chase a dump-in early on, getting an open look at the net.
With their defense corps light, the Wolverines needed Portillo to stand on his head. He did just that, stopping multiple chances through traffic and fighting off scrums.
“(Portillo’s) our last line of defense,” Pastujov said. “… We try to help him out as much as we can, but when he’s making the big save at the end of the play, it gets everybody going.”
But Ohio State battled back from its poor starts, and defenseman Grant Gabriele scored around seven minutes into the third period after Michigan couldn’t clear the puck.
That didn’t matter, after a pair of goals from Pastujov and sophomore forward Brendan Brisson with less than five minutes left in the game put the Buckeyes away. After Brisson effectively sealed the win, he skated to Portillo and tapped him on the helmet.
While the Wolverines’ performance came with an emaciated defense corps, they’ll take that challenge with Portillo between the pipes.