Limping through its last three games with significant holes in its lineup, the Michigan hockey team needed a chance to flaunt its skilled identity. It needed a chance to recenter itself before a grueling Big Ten slate.
On Saturday, Massachusetts proved to be the perfect test subject.
Finally playing with most of its usual skaters the sixth-ranked Wolverines (15-6-1 overall, 7-5 Big Ten) leaned on their speed and stick skills to beat the 10th-ranked Minutemen (10-5-2). In a game dominated by long attacks and speedy exchanges, Michigan and its World Junior Championship returners marched to a 4-1 victory.
From the opening faceoff, the Wolverines controlled play. Against Massachusetts’ dump-heavy breakouts, Michigan’s speed won out. Their quick pursuits and heads-up passes kept the Minutemen’s defense off-kilter for much of the game.
“The biggest thing playing fast is just your minds,” sophomore forward Kent Johnson said. “Some of the quick puck movement we had today that was springing us was huge. If you combine fast skaters with fast thinkers, it’s gonna be good.”
And that mental process kicked from the puck drop. Just a minute in, senior defenseman Jack Summers pinched along the boards and trapped a Massachusetts clear. As the puck rolled toward Johnson, he spotted an open Brendan Brisson in the slot. It took just seconds for the sophomore forward to take a one-timer from the knee — and the game’s first lead along with it.
But when Massachusetts stopped throwing the puck down the ice, its fortunes changed. With the Minutemen carrying the puck deep into the neutral zone, the Wolverines had to lean more on their defensive reads than its speed. And with less time for Michigan’s defense to make a play, shots fell like rain on sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo.
Those drops soon swelled into a storm. The Wolverines’ defense struggled to recover against the Massachusetts attackers bearing down on them, and grade-A opportunities piled up.
With the puck on his stick down low, Minutemen forward Garrett Wait threw it toward Portillo at a sharp, traffic-filled angle. Michigan scrambled to bat the puck away, but they couldn’t stop it from tying the game.
Now drawn even, reinvigorated Massachusetts forwards feasted on loose pucks through the rest of the period. Throwing everything they could at the net, the Minutemen created favorable rebounds that tested Michigan’s netfront defense. The Wolverines cleared the puck, but not without forcing Portillo to make sprawling saves.
“They play the right way, and they’re bound to get chances,” freshman defenseman Ethan Edwards said. “We just gotta keep sticking to our game plan. We know what’s gonna come.”
That game plan? Translating fast forechecking into offensive breaks. By the second period, Michigan’s skills stuck to that doctrine. Against a heavy-hitting Massachusetts backcheck that tried to negate the Wolverines’ speed, they used their stick work to make up the difference.
With more room to open up their speedy strides, Michigan’s attackers sprang for odd man rushes. Throughout the rest of the game, the Wolverines racked up countless odd-man rushes, including a 4-on-2 as the second period began.
Massachusetts failed to address those glaring defensive lapses, and Michigan made them pay up. With Johnson, Brisson and sophomore forward Matty Beniers sprinting in off the rush, Brisson honed in on Johnson’s stick at the left corner of the net. With no one near to shut him down, Johnson shoveled in the game-winner. Then with four minutes left, Beniers and Brisson converted a 2-on-1 rush to ice the game.
“I feel like my line especially was really good on the forecheck,” Brisson said. “… When you put all those pieces together, we’re going to score on odd man rushes and that’s what we did.”
After playing without its star power for three gritty games, the Wolverines showed how their skill game can overpower even the nation’s top teams.