MINNEAPOLIS — In both high-stakes series between the No. 3 Michigan hockey team and No. 11 Minnesota, the Golden Gophers struck first.
And on both occasions, the Wolverines responded.
Bouncing back from Friday’s demoralizing overtime defeat, Michigan (19-7-1 overall, 10-6 Big Ten) tamed Minnesota (14-10, 9-5), 4-1, to split the season series.
“(Michigan) capitalized,” Minnesota coach Bob Motzko said. “That’s what they do.”
Minnesota’s offense put on a clinic in executing clean zone entries to create dangerous opportunities throughout the contest, shrinking the Wolverines’ margin for error each time they found space to operate on offense. Backed by a stellar 39-save performance by sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo, Michigan’s low-volume offense made the most of each opportunity, paving the way to four goals and a resounding win.
It didn’t always look like the game would end that way, though. The Golden Gophers completely smothered the Wolverines in the first 15 minutes of the game, leading to the game’s first goal on just Minnesota’s third shot.
Set up by forward Blake Mclaughlin’s unobstructed entry into the zone, forward Bryce Brodsinski was left wide open in the middle of the slot. He gave the disoriented Wolverines’ defense no time to recover, quickly launching the puck past Portillo.
“Not the start we wanted,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “I thought we got off to a really slow start. … We just weren’t at the level we wanted, especially in the first 10 minutes.”
Minnesota didn’t need to pass the puck and move the defense around to create those chances either. Skaters regularly used their speed to charge at Portillo for open looks, leaving the Wolverines searching for a response.
With five minutes left in the first period, Michigan found its first answer.
When managing to seize puck control and hinder the Golden Gophers’ aggressive offense, the Wolverines spaced the ice and began effectively moving the puck right to left. Minnesota’s defense was a step too slow adjusting to the puck movement, leaving open skaters on the wing.
That resulted in back-to-back one timer goals by sophomore forwards Brendan Brisson and Matty Beniers which shocked the Golden Gophers, stifling their dominant start and swinging the game heavily, and permanently, in Michigan’s favor.
The Wolverines never dominated the affair. They simply made use of limited opportunities, and pounced on any and all mistakes.
“We made three mistakes tonight and they scored on them,” Motzko said. “… We made three poor decisions coming back, and that was it.”
Despite only totaling six shots up to that point, the back-to-back goals established the Wolverines’ winning blueprint for the night: limit the damage on the Golden Gophers’ rushes in the zone and spread Minnesota’s defense thin when managing to establish positioning.
The plan worked to perfection. Although the Golden Gophers remained the aggressors throughout the affair, whipping 18 dangerous shots on goal in the second period alone, Michigan found ways to survive the attacks while making use of seldom opportunities whenever they came.
When those chances did come, whether by a trickling puck in the crease towards senior forward Michael Pastujov or elite puck control by senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg, the Wolverines took advantage. The second and third period goals by Pastujov and Blankenburg gave Michigan necessary padding as Minnesota’s offense continued to surge.
With Michigan struggling to keep the Golden Gophers from charging at the crease, it was the Wolverines’ improved discipline that helped give them the edge. Although Minnesota’s aggression strained Michigan, the Wolverines only spent four minutes down a man after committing six penalties the game before.
Spending less time in the penalty box created more chances for spontaneous offensive opportunities, even as the Golden Gophers were the regular aggressors. Whether it was a nifty dangle in the slot by Brisson to create a serious scoring chance early in the third period or freshman forward Mackie Samoskevich’s dangerous rush at Close in the second frame, Michigan’s clean play gave it just enough to stay ahead.
“Really proud of our team,” Pearson said. “(They) hung in there, weathered the storm … That’s what you need on the road, (it was) another big road win.”