Missing eight of its mainstay players, the No. 3 Michigan hockey team needed to find a way to stack up against No. 18 Michigan Tech. Without its best players on the ice, that battle would fall into different hands.
Those hands belonged to its depth players.
Backed by an otherworldly performance by sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo, the Wolverines’ depth players saw increased minutes and shouldered greater responsibilities. They rose to the occasion — playing well enough to not lose the game — but a handful of miscues left a win out of their reach as the game ended in a scoreless tie.
“They were awesome, ” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said of his usual depth skaters and healthy scratches. “Just really proud of them. Just a real gutsy performance by a lot of those players.”
Early and often, Michigan leaned on its less-used skaters to make their mark. The Wolverines’ quick start to the raucous game was sparked by junior forward Nick Granowicz and senior defenseman Jack Summers. Both looked comfortable in key moments right out of the gate.
Within the first four minutes, Granowicz’s nifty stick work ended a dangerous Michigan Tech opportunity with a redirect, while Summers gave the Huskies’ goaltender, Blake Pietila, his first test of the evening after ripping a strong wrist shot from the right faceoff circle nine minutes in.
Summers wasn’t just active on offense — he took charge in the defensive end as well, providing critical aid to Portillo’s stellar showing throughout the night. Midway through the third period, a cross-ice pass left Michigan Tech defenseman Tyrell Buckley with a clear shooting lane left of the slot. Buckley skated towards the goal and flicked a dangerous shot, but Summers repositioned himself quickly, contorting his body to make a timely block that sent the puck away harmlessly. Those kinds of defensive efforts played a crucial role in Portillo’s success.
“I think they did a great job,” Portillo said. “We kept it really simple, and it might be one of the best 60 minutes this season.”
There’s a difference between older players taking up those missing minutes and up-and-coming contributors doing the job. Michigan relied on freshman defenseman Ethan Edwards, playing in just his 15th game, to lead the backcheck and swipe pucks away in do-or-die situations.
As a Michigan Tech skater streaked down the left wing with speed in the second period, Edwards managed to swing his stick around the skater’s body. He skillfully poked the puck away from behind without drawing a penalty.
It’s the kind of play that first-pairing veterans tend to make, not borderline active freshmen. Despite lacking much game experience, the Wolverines’ depth players looked like they’d done it on a nightly basis.
“I thought their confidence level and their puck touches and their decision making was really good,” Pearson said. “… I thought they limited their mistakes and made good decisions, kept things simple.”
Despite the glowing reviews, Michigan’s depth skaters displayed why they’re found lower on the depth chart at times as well. Defensive lapses led to unaccounted Huskies getting open shots at the net. Much of Portillo’s workload came from point-blank saves allowed by absent defenders.
The same Wolverines also noticeably struggled to establish themselves in the offensive zone. Although Michigan’s skaters totalled 30 shots, they were often weak and from a distance, struggling to pass the puck around in the attacking third.
And while the usual lineup pounces on rebounds to create second-chance opportunities, their replacements struggled to find those same chances. The Wolverines’ power play was a husk of its clinical self, and when the dust settled they were unable to score.
Lacking loads of starpower, it was time for Michigan’s deep bench to shine. Although they couldn’t lead the way to victory, they made the most of their newfound opportunity.
“They show up every day and work hard,” Pearson said. “There’s no sulking, there’s no complaining, they’re real character guys, (and) that showed tonight.”