NEW YORK — It was a situation that has become all too familiar to the No. 6 Michigan hockey team: entering the third period, trailing, in danger of failing to close out a series.
But this one had a little more to it. It came in the “World’s Most Famous Arena” — Madison Square Garden — in front of a Penn State-dominated crowd.
And it came against the Nittany Lions — the team that has all but ruined the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament hopes the past two years, the team Michigan went 1-3 against in the 2014-15 season, and the team that bounced the Wolverines from the 2014 Big Ten Tournament in the first round.
That’s why, in the days leading up to the series, a handful of Michigan’s players knew they “owed one” to the 15th-ranked Nittany Lions (6-4-0-0 Big Ten, 16-7-3 overall).
And behind a senior class — one that has arguably known the pain inflicted by Penn State the most — Michigan (7-1-2-1, 16-3-4) managed to give the Nittany Lions what it felt it owed them, capturing a 6-3 victory off a four-goal third-period effort.
“The big thing was on the schedule, we played Penn State, we had a lot of respect for Penn State,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “They’ve had their way with us for the past couple of years. I think our team really wanted to show that we’re a better team than we’ve shown in the past.”
For roughly 15 minutes, the first period remained scoreless — something that has become uncharacteristic for the Wolverine offense that is leading the nation with 4.95 goals per game.
But then the breakthrough finally came off the stick of junior forward Alex Kile after 14:55 had ticked off the clock.
After a quick combination between sophomore forward Dexter Dancs and senior forward Boo Nieves, Kile got the puck on the edge of the left circle and fired a quick wrist shot past Penn State goaltender Eamon McAdam.
The goal gave Michigan a 1-0 lead, but that advantage was short-lived. Just five minutes later, with the Wolverines 42 seconds away from leaving the first period unscathed, Penn State forward David Goodwin equalized the game off a deflection in front.
Michigan seemed unfazed, though, as it opened the second frame with an answer of its own. After going on the penalty kill immediately following the faceoff, the Wolverines capitalized on Penn State’s costly turnover at its offensive blue line.
Junior forward Max Shuart picked up the puck and quickly fed it to junior forward JT Compher. The Wolverine captain went in on the breakaway and dangled McAdam before finishing it coolly with a backhand.
The Nittany Lions countered with an equalizer off the stick of forward Andrew Sturtz two minutes into the frame, before forward Ricky DeRosa netted a go-ahead goal just under three minutes later.
While Michigan closed out the rest of the period with a number of chances, including a five-shot flurry in the final minute, the Wolverines entered the third with a one-goal hole to climb out of.
That’s when Nieves announced himself to the Garden.
Just over two minutes into the third period, the New York Rangers prospect buried the puck into an open net after receiving a perfect cross-ice pass from sophomore Sam Piazza.
“It’s awesome,” Nieves said. “To play (at Madison Square Garden) for the second time — it’s even better this time that we got a win. It’s definitely something that you keep in the back of your mind. But I was more focused on getting a team win and making sure we take care of things on our Michigan end first.”
The game was tied at three. The Wolverines had 18 minutes to change the script Penn State has written for this young rivalry. And senior forward Justin Selman came up as the man to change it.
With 10:50 gone on the clock, sophomore forward Tony Calderone dished the puck to Selman in front. The senior fired without hesitation, and lit the lamp to give Michigan its first lead since the opening two minutes of the second period.
From there, junior forward Tyler Motte ensured the advantage wouldn’t be lost again, finding twine with 5:15 left to play and adding an open-net goal as well, giving the Wolverines a 6-3 lead.
Though the junior took a hard hit late in the third, Berenson indicated that he didn’t suffer any injuries that will force him to miss time.
“We just have a winning attitude this year, a never-say-die attitude,” Selman said. “We have a lot of confidence in the guys in the room. We know if it’s not going to be you, it will be the guy next to you. We have faith in that. We just keep to what works and we’ve seen it work countless times now.”
For Michigan, the comeback victories seem to be becoming the norm. Time after time, the Wolverines have leaned on a third-period effort to salvage points in the Big Ten.
And as Michigan put Penn State away in Madison Square Garden Saturday night, it was similar to all those comeback victories of the past in a lot of ways.
But at the same time, this one had a little more to it.