Right from the start of Friday night’s game, it was very clear what the No. 17 Western Michigan hockey team’s (5-3 overall) prerogative was against No. 4 Michigan (6-1). The Broncos were looking to force a naturally dynamic squad to play slow.
And for large portions of the game, that strategy worked. They clogged the center, crowded the neutral zone, pushed the Wolverines to the boards on defense and blocked shot after shot. And because of it, Michigan looked befuddled at times.
But there were moments where Michigan’s speed couldn’t be tamed. And there were just enough of these moments to power the Wolverines to a hard-fought, 5-4 victory.
Regardless of what style the Broncos were looking to play, the contest turned into a track meet with both sides finding themselves on several breakaways. And in a track meet, Michigan’s speed turned out to be just a bit more than Western could handle.
“We’re a really good skating team,” junior defenseman Steven Holtz said. “Obviously I’m biased, I think we’re the best skating team in the country, and if you want us to skate, we’ll skate. And I think it showed out there.”
But for a game that turned into a fast-paced, heavy-hitting showdown, the night’s action started at a dreary pace. Neither team built any offensive pressure in the opening shifts, and after four minutes, no shots had been registered. A minute and a half later though, two shots had been put on goal — and both of them went in.
Western struck first, capitalizing with a one-timer on an ill timed neutral zone change from freshman forward Adam Fantilli that led to a 3-on-2 advantage. But just a minute later, Michigan struck right back with freshman forward Jackson Hallum getting a stick to a ricocheted block and tucking it near side.
But besides that outburst, the first was slow and systematic. The Wolverines tried to get pucks past the Broncos bodies crowding the center, and Western tried to catch Michigan on odd man rushes. Neither strategy led to goals.
But in the second period, the pace shifted. The Wolverines still couldn’t generate enough sustained offensive pressure to score on the forecheck. So they relied on their speed, and it worked.
“We practice rush offense all the time,” freshman forward TJ Hughes said. “A team like us, so skilled, we just generate offensively off the rush because of our skill.”
Fantilli struck first, stripping Western’s Cedric Fiedler at the blue line before ripping a shot top left on a breakaway. And just a few minutes later, the offensive rush strategy worked again. Junior defenseman Steven Holtz flew into the O-zone on a 3-on-2 and goaded the Broncos’ Cameron Rowe into ill-advisedly coming out of the net. Holtz lobbed the puck to the center where it pinballed for a moment before slipping to TJ Hughes who passed it into an empty net.
The game no longer was slow or pensive, but rather filled with flashy displays of speed and quick puck movement. And it wasn’t just Michigan, it was both teams. Western poked holes in the Wolverines’ defense multiple times to create opportunities for itself on breakaways and odd man rushes, and it turned into offense.
Michigan’s lead caved quickly as the Broncos scored twice in just a minute late in the second, first by building sustained zone pressure, and then by turning a blocked shot into an odd man rush.
“I think out of their goals, two or three of them were scored on odd man rushes,” Holtz said. “That’s definitely something we’ve got to clean up. … It just comes down to having that third guy high, not diving down on pucks and just trying to make the proper read.”
The tie didn’t last long, as sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich capitalized just twenty seconds later on a rush out of the neutral zone with a top shelf backhander to make the score 4-3 heading into the intermission.
Early in the third, the Broncos scored a fourth goal off of sustained power play pressure and it appeared that their stalwart defense might just carry them to win. But a breakaway midway through the third proved to be their downfall.
Fifth-year senior Nolan Moyle picked off a misplayed puck at the blue line and rushed forward for a 2-on-0 breakaway. Moyle flew in with speed, hesitated, and wired a puck top right for his first goal of the season. One which would change the lead for the final time.
“I knew he was scoring,” TJ Hughes said. “I had so much confidence in him, and he deserves it. It was his first one, and it’s a great first goal to have. Can’t really beat that one, he had a great finish.”
It was an emotional game. One that shifted pace multiple times and teetered back and forth before tipping just slightly in the Wolverines’ favor.
“We’re just trying to ride the emotions,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “The back and forth. … If you played 10-15 more minutes it might shift or change another three or four times. I’m glad we ended up on top.”
For parts of the game, Western found a strategy that slowed Michigan. But the Wolverines’ speed would turn out to be just a bit too much on the rush, and they won the track meet. Although just by a hair.