Scraping for control, Michigan struggled with Minnesota-Duluth’s offense early on. The Bulldogs kept the puck all over the ice, and the Wolverines couldn’t force it away from them.
That all changed with five minutes left in the first period.
The puck nowhere in sight, senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg took a massive strike to the head as Duluth forward Noah Cates rammed an elbow up high into Blankenburg. The Bulldogs earned a major penalty and Cates was thrown out of the game.
Before the hit, Duluth dominated. That all came to a halt when Blankenburg fell to the ice, and Michigan would go on to win, 5-1. Unclipping his helmet and failing to stand up straight, the captain’s game seemed to be over.
“Nick is a really strong kid,” senior forward Garrett Van Wyhe said. “After that hit it woke us up because we were flat footed in the first 10. Seeing his determination to get back out there really got us going.”
The Wolverines looked to capitalize on the power play and avenge Blankenburg’s strike. With an opportunity to change the trajectory of the game, Michigan needed to take full advantage.
With 40 seconds left on the clock, freshman defenseman Luke Hughes found the puck wide left of the goal, tying the game 1-1. Michigan tied the game, but in that moment found a sense of resolve.
The hit turned the game around.
“They took a major penalty which was a turning point in the game,” Michigan coach Mel Peason said. “We scored there. To get the first one was huge and then we took over the game in the second period.”
The Wolverines went on to outshoot the Bulldogs 30-11 in the second period. Michigan scored midway through the second period through sophomore forward Brendan Brisson. By then the Wolverines had the game firmly in their grasp as Van Wyhe and sophomore forward Matty Beniers each scored. Duluth, on the other hand, couldn’t take advantage of their own power plays, going 0-for-4 as Michigan embraced a gritty mentality.
Should Blankenburg have reacted differently, that all could have ended differently. In a situation where most players would retaliate against the Bulldogs, Blankenburg’s experience showed. He got back on the ice and played his role.
“You get your emotions going in the games, but Blankenburg is as tough as they come,” Pearson said. “He wanted to go out and I wanted to make sure we sat him for a shift or two … he’s a competitor, a warrior and you want him on your team.”
The captain proved his grit on the night. Returning to the ice after the hit, Blankenburg led the charge and made clean passes tape to tape. He kept his composure in Michigan’s biggest game of the year.
Michigan started the game slow, but Blankenburg’s response to the dangerous hit set an example that the Wolverines could look to the rest of the game. Michigan needed its leader in its biggest game this season, and Blankenburg delivered.