Nolan Moyle hesitated before taking his seat in the press conference. Sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes had taken the seat on the far left, and it was clear that Moyle preferred to sit on the right rather than in the middle.
But his linemate, freshman forward Garrett Van Wyhe, quickly pushed him to take the middle seat, front and center.
“Go sit in the middle, superstar,” Van Wyhe said.
With two goals in the last ten minutes of the game, Moyle — a freshman forward — nearly single-handedly lifted Michigan (13-12-6 overall, 9-8-4-2 Big Ten) to a win over No. 6 Ohio State, 4-2.
The Buckeyes had taken a 2-1 lead with 15 minutes left in the final stanza after forward Tanner Laczynski collected up a rebound in front of freshman goaltender Strauss Mann and sent it past the sprawling netminder.
Moyle, Van Wyhe and their third linemate, sophomore forward Dakota Raabe, were on the ice when Ohio State took the lead.
It didn’t take them long to answer back.
A few minutes later, Van Wyhe pushed the puck up the ice and wrapped around behind goaltender Sean Romeo. He tried to score off the wrap-around, and when the puck rebounded out, Moyle was right there on the doorstep waiting for the puck to tap it past Romeo.
“They got scored on on that second goal,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “I didn’t like it. But they redeemed themselves and continued to play. I think that’s perseverance and some energy and that’s a big-time goal — Garrett Van Wyhe made the play, good strength, speed, goes to the net. And Moyle gets in front of the net and it’s a tap-in. That’s a big goal.”
Pearson always talks about his players getting to the “gritty area” in front of the net. He wants the Wolverines to get in close on the opposing goaltender to clean up rebounds and create extra scoring chances.
On Friday night, Moyle was rewarded for getting to that area.
For Moyle’s second goal of the game — and the game-winner — Van Wyhe once again brought the puck into the offensive zone and sent a shot at Romeo. And once again, Moyle was just in the right spot to clean up the rebound.
“I think Garrett just really used his speed and showed it,” Moyle said. “Just got the puck to the net and it was fortunate enough to find me and it was a really good play.”
Ohio State was called for a penalty on Moyle’s second goal — defenseman Gordi Myer held a Michigan player and earned a two-minute minor penalty. The power play gave the Wolverines a chance to put the Buckeyes away for good as the final minutes ticked off the clock.
Only one second after the power play ended, senior defenseman Nicholas Boka sent a pass across the ice to freshman forward Jimmy Lambert. Lambert was waiting at the bottom of the left circle to fire a hard-angled shot at Romeo. The netminder didn’t have a chance at stopping the puck and Michigan put the final nail in Ohio State’s coffin.
“That’s a big goal by Jimmy Lambert there at the end,” Pearson said. “It’s a 3-2 game if we don’t score and they got more time. That puts a lot of pressure on them. That’s a huge goal.”
And that goal was the second time in the game the Wolverines scored on a shot Romeo didn’t have a chance at saving.
With 2.4 seconds left in the second period, Hughes tied the game on a shot from the left circle that bounced off the right goalpost and into the net. It looked like a lucky shot that happened to get the right bounce to find twine. As it turns out, that wasn’t the case.
“Great design by (assistant coach Brian) Wiseman,” Pearson said. “And they executed. You can design a play, but you have to execute it. And that, I don't think that goalie stops that 10 out of 10 times. It's off the post and it's in, (Hughes) fires it.”
Hughes’ goal brought life and energy to a crowd desperate for it. Ohio State had a one-goal lead at that point, and Michigan needed to even the score and build some momentum. Scoring with mere seconds left in the period was just what the Wolverines needed.
And as the game went on, Michigan continued to find a way to deliver when needed. The two tying goals kept the Wolverines in the hunt, and Moyle and Lambert added the final blows to the Buckeyes.
Two freshmen allowed Michigan to pull away in the waning moments of the game, an accomplishment that’s particularly impressive against Ohio State, which boasts juniors and seniors across its lineup.
“We’re one of the four youngest teams in college hockey,” Pearson said. “I think that shows at times, just with our maturity, but we’ve come a long way and we’ve found a way. We just hung in there and found a way to will our way to a victory.”
And with the Wolverines in the hunt for home-ice advantage during the Big Ten Tournament, finding a way to win will be even more important through the last three regular-season games.
Perhaps the freshmen will be the key.