KALAMAZOO, MICH. — Senior forward Jimmy Lambert stood anxiously in the box, primed to bolt onto the ice as his minor penalty expired. As his skates hit the ice, the puck careened off the boards in front of him and he found himself in the play just like he’d prepared for.
But as he found the puck on his stick, the imposing figure of Western Michigan defenseman Aidan Fulp loomed over him. Taking the hit and passing the puck out behind him, Lambert connected with sophomore defenseman Owen Power, on a breakaway with a golden opportunity.
“Just chip the puck by, absorb the hit, take the hit, keep the puck moving,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We talked about that a lot today … Western’s gonna step up and hit you, you had to just make sure you kept chipping.”
Power’s shot rang off the post, but it marked a turning point in the Wolverines’ approach to facing the Broncos’ physical game. They forged a newfound poise against Western Michigan’s heavy checking in Saturday’s overtime win
Michigan hadn’t faced a true, grinding performance all season. The closest it came was against Minnesota-Duluth, but that faded after the first period. The Broncos kept it up all 62 minutes of the game.
Western Michigan’s play centered around its ability to hit hard and often, many of those coming from its big defensemen. For a speedy, finesse-oriented group like the Wolverines, the Broncos’ disruptive presence proved a significant challenge.
Some of Michigan’s adaptation came from the units Pearson put on the ice. After the Wolverines’ highly skilled forwards like sophomore forwards Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson struggled to find space in the first period, Pearson sent the bottom six out to wear down the Broncos.
Two key players in this were senior forwards Garrett Van Wyhe and Nolan Moyle. Two of the most physical presences on the Michigan roster, they absorbed many of Western Michigan’s hits and threw a few of their own. After countering a zone entry from the Broncos by standing up their forecheckers, the duo opened up space for the Wolverines’ second goal.
“Coming into their barn, we knew it was gonna be a physical one, especially after last night,” Moyle said. “We’ve got a lot of skill on this team, but just giving it right back to them, trying to grab as much as we could is what we tried to stick with.”
The Broncos’ early hits caught the Wolverines off guard, but as the game progressed they became more comfortable taking them. Like the Lambert play, they held the puck long enough to make a play and paid a physical price for that additional time. Making that trade paid off as Michigan created high danger chances when it got the puck.
That comfort also limited the grade-A chances that Western Michigan tried to force through its hitting. With eight minutes left in the second period, two Broncos chased sophomore defenseman Jacob Truscott behind the Wolverines’ net. Truscott cradled the puck while taking a hard hit, buying time for a teammate to grab the puck and clear it. What could have been a goal against turned into nothing.
“It ultimately comes down to compete, your will and want for it,” Moyle said. “We really settled in and started competing and taking some hits from them. And at that point, working hard, our skill will take over.”
But Michigan still struggled with Western Michigan’s checking. On both power play goals for the Broncos, they battled for territory in front of the net. Sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo couldn’t see the puck through these screens, and Western capitalized with goals. The same screens almost cost the Wolverines the game with 1:42 left, but the goal was called back for a high tip.
Michigan fared poorly against Western Michigan’s physicality early on, but it adjusted on the fly to counter their aggressive style. Its performance was far from perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction to round out its skilled style.