DETROIT — Jake Slaker didn’t hesitate.
The senior forward received a pass across the crease from freshman forward Eric Ciccolini and, in an instant, Slaker buried the puck behind Ferris State goaltender Austin Shaw to give the Michigan hockey team the lead, 1-0, in the first period.
It was a lead the Wolverines (7-10-2) wouldn’t relinquish as they tacked on three more to win, 4-1 over the Bulldogs (6-10-2) on Monday and advance to the championship game of the Great Lakes Invitational.
And in the second period, Slaker once again found himself in position to score. Freshman defenseman Keaton Pehrson sent a long pass from the neutral zone up to Slaker entering the offensive zone. Slaker looked up and saw nothing but ice between himself and Shaw, and he made a quick move to send the puck into the net for the second time.
“(Slaker was) opportunistic,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “Finished, which is good. We need our seniors to lead this team, especially the second half.”
Slaker’s two goals kept Michigan in front for the duration of the game, but the Wolverines seemed to try their best at times to give the lead away.
In the opening period, Michigan was on the power play when junior forward Michael Pastujov sent an errant pass through the neutral zone right to the tape of forward Liam MacDougall. Though the Bulldogs were shorthanded, MacDougall had a one-on-none breakaway and sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann stood tall to keep the game at a one-goal margin.
“You can tell that we haven’t played since Dec. 7,” Pearson said. “I thought we were real sluggish tonight against a gritty team that doesn’t give you much. There wasn’t a lot of time and space. We couldn’t use our speed as well as we would’ve liked tonight, but I give Ferris a lot of credit. They play hard.”
The Wolverines held a narrow advantage in shots on goal throughout the matchup, and in the third period, they locked down defensively and continued to put just enough pressure on Shaw to ensure the Bulldogs couldn’t get much going at the other end of the ice.
After sophomore forward Garrett Van Wyhe and defenseman Joe Rutkowski were sent to the box for matching minors in the third period, senior forward Nick Pastujov went end-to-end after winning a faceoff and found senior forward Will Lockwood all alone in front of Shaw.
Lockwood cut to his right, slid around defenseman Nate Kallen and sent a sharp-angle shot past Shaw for his fifth goal of the season to ice the game for Michigan with just under seven minutes left to play.
“Nick made a great play,” Lockwood said. “That was just a hardworking play up the wall. I had a feeling — I know Nick well, I knew he was going to get to that puck first and that it was going to pop out for me for the breakaway. Fortunate enough, it did, and it rolled in for me.”
With 1:45 left in the game, forward Brenden MacLaren tucked the puck over Mann’s shoulder to break the shutout, but it was too little, too late for the Bulldogs. The Wolverines answered back less than a minute later as junior forward Dakota Raabe hit the empty net for his first goal of the season, eliminating Ferris State’s last chance at a comeback.
And despite knocking off the Bulldogs, Pearson wasn’t entirely thrilled with how his team played after a three-week break. In Tuesday’s championship game, Michigan will face Michigan Tech, where Pearson played and coached for 16 years, including six seasons as the head coach before taking the job at Michigan in 2017.
But Pearson isn’t thinking about the history between himself and the Huskies when the two teams meet on Tuesday. To him, all that matters is winning the game, regardless of opponent — and he knows Michigan Tech will be a challenge.
“They’re a good team, got a lot of really good forwards, a lot of guys who can score,” Pearson said. “Their defense adds offense, their goaltender is as good as any in the country. Obviously, they’re the favorite. We’re a below-.500 team limping into this tournament, they’re ranked up high, top 20 in the Pairwise.
“We’re going to show up and give it everything we can and hopefully find a way to win.”