EAST LANSING — The Michigan hockey team had everything to lose. And entering Saturday’s matchup, the Wolverines were already hurting.
After sweeping then-No. 15 Penn State, Michigan faltered in a rivalry loss to Michigan State in Joe Louis Arena — its first loss since Dec. 12 — and the circumstances surrounding the defeat made it hurt even more.
The Wolverines gave the Spartans the first taste of lifting the Iron ‘D’ trophy. They fell at the hands of an opponent that boasted just two wins in the Big Ten, on a night when senior goaltender Steve Racine had arguably his best performance of the season.
And as if that weren’t enough, the Wolverines allowed Michigan State to send them plummeting in the PairWise Rankings.
But Saturday in East Lansing, No. 5 Michigan (8-2-2-1 Big Ten, 17-4-4 overall) set the tone from the opening whistle, ensuring lightning wouldn’t strike twice and capturing a 4-1 victory.
“I think (Friday’s) loss really sunk in with us,” said senior forward Justin Selman. We hadn’t really faced much adversity in a while. As much as it stinks to lose, it was a good little wake-up call for us late in the season. It kind of gave us a second gear today.”
With 14 minutes gone in the second period, though, the Spartans weren’t making it easy for Michigan. The Wolverines were holding onto their advantage, but after Michigan State (3-9-0-0, 7-19-2) rattled the post twice and started forcing Racine to work, their one-goal lead seemed destined to be erased. Then Michigan found an answer from the place people have grown to expect — its first line.
Junior forward JT Compher picked up the puck and fed it to junior forward Tyler Motte in the slot. The puck wasn’t on Motte’s stick for long, though, as he threaded the needle between two defenders back to Compher down low.
The Wolverine captain coasted across the crease and coolly finished the chance before pounding the glass in celebration.
The horn sounded. Michigan, 2-0.
“We knew the things we did wrong last night,” said junior forward Tyler Motte. “We didn’t really capitalize on chances. It wasn’t a matter of effort or attitude. We knew coming into this building we had to have another good start, and that’s where our mindset was.”
The Wolverines were the first to find twine — the only time they have scored first in four games against the Spartans this year. Just over eight minutes into the first period, Selman picked up a loose puck and fired from the slot, beating Michigan State goaltender Jake Hildebrand and giving Michigan the lead.
Though the Wolverines outshot the Spartans, 20-3, in the first period, Michigan couldn’t generate many quality chances, and Selman’s finish was the only one of the frame. After Compher lit the lamp, though, the goals seemed to come in bunches for the Wolverines.
Just under two minutes into the third period, Selman notched his second of the night on a finish in front. The goal wouldn’t have been possible if not for the effort of freshman forward Brendan Warren, who battled for a puck behind the net before feeding Selman for the easy opportunity.
Michigan’s fourth tally came from Motte, good for his 25th goal of the season.
“It’s something we talked about in the intermission,” Motte said. “He saw that their two forwards were shadowing on both sides, so I tried to get some speed up the middle. I didn’t think I was going to be in on a clear breakaway… but it was something that (Werenski) called out in the locker room and we went with it.”
The Wolverines’ blueliners looked much-improved throughout the matchup, as the Spartans’ only goal came on the power play off the stick of Villiam Haag. Racine built on his strong Friday night outing, ending with 32 saves on the night.
The weekend was in no way perfect for Michigan. But with their backs against the wall, the Wolverines had the option of crumbling under pressure or rising in the wake of adversity. And they chose the latter.