Part of the difficulty of successfully navigating a Big Ten hockey season is battling the same conference foes multiple times each year. Teams begin to learn each other’s tendencies and pick up on habits, making it that much more difficult to create separation. 

With less than two minutes left in the second period, defeating Penn State for a fourth time this season appeared too tall a task for the No. 4 Michigan hockey team. The Wolverines were unable to control the game script, and found themselves buried in a 3-1 deficit. 

But a goal late in the second period by sophomore forward Matty Beniers sparked a resurgence, and Michigan (18-6-1 overall, 9-5 Big Ten) clawed back to down Penn State (12-12-0, 3-11), 4-3, sweeping the season series. 

“It’s hard enough to beat a team twice in a year, let alone four times,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “… It’s never easy in the Big Ten.”  

A strong Penn State start highlighted a scoreless first period. The Nittany Lions comfortably established an offensive rhythm early, and an effective forecheck kept the puck in their offensive zone while struggles with puck control and transition skating kept Michigan off balance throughout much of the first period

The Wolverines got more skaters in front of the net and increased their shot volume as the first frame wore on, but it was in the second period when floodgates opened on both sides of the rink.  

Senior forward Michael Pastujov’s high sticking penalty gave the Nittany Lions their first power play of the night, but it was Michigan who took advantage. Senior forward Jimmy Lambert intercepted goaltender Oskar Autio’s entry pass at the blue line, setting up an uncontested two-on-one break and a goal by senior forward Nolan Moyle. 

Penn State, however, was quick to respond. 

Less than three minutes later, forward Ben Copeland dislodged the puck from between sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo’s pads to score the first of three unanswered Nittany Lion goals in the second period. 

Midway through the second period, defeneman Simon Mack’s strong wrist shot bounced off Portillo’s glove, deflecting at forward Christain Sarlo, who easily scored in front of the vacated net on the right side. Four minutes later, Penn State forward Tyler Gratton outskated Michigan’s defense up the left side, sniping the puck past Portillo to hand the Nittany Lions a 3-1 lead. 

“(Penn State) played a really strong road game,” Pearson said. “They kept us off balance.” 

Gratton’s goal seemingly left the Wolverines in the dust. He sped past the blue line, and Michigan had absolutely no response to his invasion. Cheers from the Nittany Lions’ bench were all that could be heard in the lifeless Yost Ice Arena, and Michigan was running out of time to respond. 

A cross checking penalty on Penn State defenseman Kenny Johnson with less than four minutes left was the Wolverines’ first step in their attempt to come back. They controlled the puck for the entire first minute of the man-advantage, producing a series of dangerous looks at the goal. 

Although the mostly dominant power play failed to result in a much-needed goal, it gave Michigan a pulse. 

And Beniers’ goal — coming just as the penalty expired — gave it life. 

“We didn’t score on the power play, but we created a number of great chances,” Pearson said. “And just as their player was coming back on the ice, we got a huge goal, and that really shifted the momentum going into the third period.”

From there, the Wolverines wouldn’t turn back, exercising the earlier demons of limited puck control and struggles to set up an offense to storm past the Nittany Lions.  

Less than a minute into the third period, Hughes sped past the defense, capturing a pass from Beniers and scoring the game’s tying goal as his sheer speed led him to crash into the boards behind the net. 

A spinning wrist shot in the slot by sophomore forward Brendan Brisson midway through the period completed the gutsy comeback, and Michigan’s five-minute penalty kill directly thereafter erased any hopes of a Penn State equalizer. 

“This (was) a huge statement game for us,” Moyle said. “Every point matters this time of year, and we don’t want to come back to the locker room with any regrets. … This is a huge win for us.”