Twelve times this season, the Michigan hockey team has allowed its opponent to score first. Only once had the Wolverines fought back and earned an outright victory — last week against No. 5 Minnesota. The other win came in a shootout against Michigan State.
Ten times, they’ve never recovered and ended up losing. If an opponent strikes first — as No. 11 Penn State did Friday night — there’s a good bet it’ll hang on for the victory.
But on Friday night, Michigan clawed back after a late first-period goal. It remained resolute, and despite allowing more than double the shots, defeated No. 11 Penn State at Yost Ice Arena, 3-2, for its third win in its last four games.
“It’s huge,” said junior forward Tony Calderone. “Going into the Big Ten Tournament, we wanna get going. Once Big Ten Tournament starts, it’s a new season. It’s good to get some momentum and be a completely different team once the tournament starts.”
Added freshman goaltender Hayden Lavigne: “We also showed that we can beat anybody in our conference, and that if we come in with that confidence, we know that we can get through the Big Ten Tournament.”
With just five tenths of a second seconds left on the clock in the first period, Nittany Lion forward Kris Myllari took a slap shot from the faceoff circle that went past the outstretched glove of Lavigne.
But Michigan remained undeterred. Despite yet another period-ending goal, the Wolverines began their comeback in the second frame. With a 2-on-3 advantage, sophomore forward Cooper Marody passed the puck to his linemate Calderone, who shot it from the right dot straight into the net to tie the game at one.
Even if Michigan hadn’t come back, it still deserves some credit for a significantly improved performance since the last time it played Penn State. In State College, the Nittany Lions outscored the Wolverines 11-2, and Penn State never gave them a chance. Friday night, Michigan showed it can still remain competitive amidst a lost season.
Perhaps motivated by its urgency to play the spoiler, the Wolverines — especially in the first period— seemed to stay neck-and-neck with the Nittany Lions. With little likelihood of reaching the NCAA Tournament — the Wolverines would need to win the Big Ten Tournament — Michigan now looks to prevent others from earning postseason berths. As it did against the Golden Gophers, the Wolverines fulfilled this role.
“I don’t know if we’re peaking yet, but we’re playing with a little more desperation, a little more urgency, a little more reality of our situation, and we’re making the most of it,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We came here (tonight) with some pride and got out of here with some confidence and momentum.
“(The players) have pride in that locker room. They don’t like that record. We’re not even a .500 team at home. We have to be better. We’re working hard every week in practice. And we’ve had some really good competition these past three weeks: Ohio State, Minnesota and now Penn State.”
It didn’t come easy, as might be expected against a top-15 team. After Calderone’s goal in the second, Penn State forward David Thompson took a wrist shot on a pass from Andrew Sturtz to give the Nittany Lions a 2-1 lead.
It looked as if, once again, an early goal would haunt the Wolverines’ chances of victory. Fortunately for them, forwards Brendan Warren and James Sanchez chased down an errant puck after a teammate blocked a Nittany Lion shot, and with only one Penn State defender separating them, Warren deked out the blueliner for the go-ahead goal, giving Michigan a 3-2 lead it would never relinquish. It was just Warren’s third goal of the season.
“You could see that Brendan wanted (the puck), and I don’t know if he got a good shot at it or not, but he got a good poke at it in the net and that’s all the counted,” Berenson said. “You know for a goal like that, and it holds up, it’s good for him and good for our team. It just shows all the guys on the team everybody is important, not just the guys with the most points or goals.”
With the victory over Penn State, the Wolverines have finally beaten each member of the Big Ten, but have yet to sweep any opponent this season.
They’ll look to do so against the Nittany Lions on Saturday night in Michigan’s final game of the regular season.