STATE COLLEGE — Jake Slaker knew in the back of his mind that good things come to those who wait, and he got to see that firsthand Friday night against No. 5 Penn State .
Coming off a failed power play with five minutes left, with the game tied 4-4, the No. 16 Michigan hockey team had to wait a little longer than expected for this moment. After falling behind 3-1 in the first period and 4-2 in the second, the Wolverines could have easily folded to the Nittany Lions.
Ten seconds after it returned to even ice, Slaker made up all of that time, instantaneously. All it took was a flick of the wrist from the right slot. Just like that the Wolverines saw their second — and ultimate — lead of the game.
In every sense of the phrase, Michigan walked into the lion’s den at Pegula Ice Arena, and took on a juggernaut of a Nittany Lions’ offense head on, notching a thrilling 6-4 comeback victory.
The Wolverines were behind schedule in more ways than just the game. Michigan’s flight to State College got cancelled Thursday night due to heavy snow and had to travel with the men’s basketball team on the same plane to Hartford Friday morning before arriving at Penn State almost 24 hours later than anticipated, with no time to practice.
“We just try to adjust our schedule a little bit,” Slaker said. “We try to keep it as normal as possible to what we would do if we were here the night before or earlier in the day.”
Coming into Friday night, Penn State had the top-ranked offense in college hockey at 5.78 goals per game, 1.58 more than the second-place mark.
Despite the home team’s imposing offensive shadow, the Wolverines drew first blood 4:40 into the first period. Twenty six seconds into a power play, Michigan’s offense found daylight when senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi sailed the puck from the point through multiple Penn State defenders into goaltender Chris Funkey’s five hole.
Even though the Wolverines led, Penn State prevented Michigan from establishing any sort of rhythm on even ice before and after the penalty.
And, as has been the case for the Wolverines for much of the season, when it rained, it poured. Less than two minutes after securing the lead, junior defenseman Griffin Luce got called for tripping and the Nittany Lions immediately pounced — bouncing a shot from a faceoff in the right circle onto the crossbar and behind freshman goaltender Strauss Mann.
While Michigan got quality shots off, Penn State dominated possession for much of the first and second periods, daring the Wolverines to take the puck from them and reciprocating that challenge on the other side of the ice. Towards the end of the first period, the Nittany Lions fourth line danced between Wolverines defenders behind the goal, and forward Denis Smirnov took a pass at the right side of the crease and flicked it across Mann to forward Ludvig Larsson to put Penn State up 2-1.
From that point on, Michigan braved an avalanche. After the Wolverines failed to capitalize on a power play bridging the first and second periods, Penn State forward Nate Sucese capitalized with a breakaway goal off a Michigan turnover as soon at the game returned to even ice.
Every time the Wolverines seemed like they had a chance in the second period, the Nittany Lions seemed to have an extra gear. While junior forward Nick Pastujov cut Penn State’s lead to 3-2 five minutes into the second period, the Nittany Lions responded by stonewalling the crease and further dominating possession. By the time the period came to a close, Penn State found itself behind Michigan’s crease yet again for a tip shot and a 4-2 lead.
Each of Penn State’s first four goals — and 31 of its 54 total shot attempts in the first two periods — came either at the crease or in the zone between the circles. Once the Wolverines cleaned up their passing to start the third period, sophomore forward Josh Norris scored on an empty-net faceoff rebound, right after a Michigan power play ended. Sophomore forward Jack Becker started the Wolverines’ own avalanche with another rebound that he tucked under the crossbar to tie the game.
This time, the Wolverines didn’t fold. Mann saved four shots in the same center circle zone that Michigan struggled to defend in the first two periods, and Michigan outshot Penn State 18-8 in the third period.
It was their turn to control the tempo and claw their way into the teeth of the Nittany Lions’ blue line. When Slaker scored the go-ahead goal, it was all but proof that it was Michigan’s turn to be the team in control for once.
“We just realized what it took to get the puck to the net and kind of get bodies to the net and we started to realize –– we started to find our legs a little bit,” Slaker said. “And later in the game we started to get going a little more and got better as the game went on.”
And when he broke away to ice the game on an empty-netter with 17.4 remaining, the lion was slain.