Entering the weekend, just two teams had beaten Minnesota this season.
That’s largely thanks to the third-ranked Gophers’ stout defense. On average, they allow just 1.83 goals per game, good for second-best in the country. Combine that defense with Richter Award finalist Jack LaFontaine — who leads all goaltenders nationally with a .941 save percentage — and Minnesota becomes a team that’s a nightmare to scheme against. Put simply, goals are going to be nearly impossible to come by.
Against a team like that, sometimes the best approach is to throw pucks on net and hope for a bounce. In its 5-2 win over the Gophers Friday night, that’s exactly what Michigan did — when the offense struggled to get going early on, it worked to rack up shots and get greasy goals.
“Jack LaFontaine’s a heck of a goalie,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “You’re not gonna beat him too many times with a clean shot, head on. You’re gonna have to get traffic, you’re gonna have to grind it and muck it up in there and work, and I thought we did a really nice job of that, getting to the net tonight.”
When the Wolverines struggled to register any shots early on — they entered the first intermission with just five shots — it became all the more important for them to capitalize on whatever opportunities they could get.
Freshman forward Thomas Bordeleau did just that on a power play late in the first period. A series of deflections in front of the goal sent a bouncing puck across the crease to the side of the net, where Bordeleau fired it past LaFontaine to give Michigan a 1-0 lead, despite just five shots on goal.
After Minnesota equalized (and continued to dominate in shots) midway through the second period, freshman forward Kent Johnson answered with a similar goal. A rebound off a point shot from junior defenseman Jack Summers left two players from each team scrambling for the puck, before Johnson pulled it out of the scrum, put it on his backhand and buried the goal — all while facing away from the net.
Suddenly, the Wolverines had a 2-1 lead, despite a 19-8 deficit in shots.
“It’s always great to get those greasy ones,” Johnson said. “They count the same, so we were fortunate to get those today, and we’ll try to keep doing that tomorrow.”
From there, the offensive zone opened up a lot more for Michigan, but the approach remained roughly the same. With five minutes remaining in the third period, it was sophomore forward Nick Granowicz’s turn for a gritty goal, cleaning up a rebound in front after freshman forward Matty Beniers rang one off the post.
The goal was the fourth the Wolverines nestled past LaFontaine on the night — a total that he’s allowed just two other times this season.
“(LaFontaine) had some great saves. He had us shaking our heads a few times on some of the saves he made,” Pearson said. “You have to simplify things. … But again, I like our grittiness around their net tonight.”
Looking at the shot totals alone — the Gophers finished with a 30-19 advantage in shots — it would be easy to assume that Michigan maybe got lucky and won mostly on a few fluke plays.
But that simply isn’t what happened. Even with the deficit in shots, the Wolverines stuck to their gameplan. They were more competitive in front of the net, and they capitalized on the opportunities they had.
And against a great team like Minnesota — and an exceptional goalie like LaFontaine — that’s about as perfect as they could have hoped for.