STATE COLLEGE — Just outside the closing minute of the first period, Michigan senior goaltender Steve Racine lay in the crease with his face buried in the ice as the crowd roared.
Off to a shaky start, Racine had just conceded a cringe-worthy goal to No. 15 Penn State on a shot from outside the blue line.
A fan held a sign up to the glass reading: “It’s all your fault!”
And it was Racine’s fault. He had hit the puck with his glove, missing an easy save, only to see it drop behind him into the net to make the score 2-2.
But the goalie stayed there for only a second before picking himself up off the ice. And, eventually, the sixth-ranked Wolverines picked themselves up, too, besting the Nittany Lions, 7-4.
“That was a good test for our goalie and our team — not to let that goal upset us,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We didn’t.”
For the hockey purist, the first period was one to forget. But boy, was it exciting.
Michigan (6-1-2 Big Ten, 15-3-4 overall) opened the scoring amid confusion. Junior forward Tyler Motte put away a puck that fluttered high above the ice and fell nearly straight to his stick in front of the left post.
Penn State’s Chase Berger countered by working through traffic to beat Racine to a rebound.
Then, it was sophomore forward Niko Porikos scoring form the high slot with his first career goal on an assist from his linemate, junior forward Evan Allen. Those two had played a combined 19 of a possible 44 games this year going into Thursday.
The pandemonium was capped off in Michigan’s defensive end with Racine’s error. A long shot hit the goalie square in the chest and bounced. The senior knocked the rebound with his glove and watched, helplessly, as the puck lazily drooped backward over his head and into the net. Not a single Penn State player was in the offensive zone.
It was a wild way to open the game, but that might have been expected given the recent history between the two teams. The Wolverines have been frustrated by the Nittany Lions over the past two seasons — Penn State eliminated Michigan from the Big Ten Tournament in 2014 and the Wolverines dropped three of four regular season matchups to the Nittany Lions in 2015.
The combination of similar styles and impressive speed made for a jolting contest in which momentum was nearly impossible to find.
“(Penn State has) earned a lot of respect from the Big Ten conference,” Berenson said. “Particularly with us, the way they’ve handled us. We had to have an A-game ready, otherwise it wouldn’t be good enough.”
Michigan was closest to establishing control in the second period. Freshman Kyle Connor and juniors Tyler Motte and JT Compher have easily outscored any other line in college hockey this month. That trend continued with a string of three goals when the Wolverines’ electric first line put Penn State in a 5-3 hole.
“It can be any line, as we’ve seen from the beginning of the year, with Cooper Marody’s line really getting off to a hot start,” Motte said. “I guess it’s our turn now.”
Connor, alone, has 20 goals in 22 games. Following his streak, the 19-year-old had two goals and two assists on Thursday night. He opened the scoring by finishing a breakaway gifted by a diving play from Motte.
Connor later found Compher alone in front with a perfect backhand pass and capped off the period by batting a rebound out of the air.
Penn State (6-3-0, 16-6-3) finally got going again with just over three minutes to play in the period on a goal from Tommy Olczyk — but it wasn’t enough.
The third period got off to an odd start when Michigan’s coaches were absent for the puck drop.
“This building wasn’t designed for the visiting coaches to get to the bench,” Berenson said. “You have to walk down this hall and it seems like you go around campus to get to the visitor’s bench. So we didn’t leave on time. We missed the first shift. The players were all laughing about it on the bench.
“I’m not sure who was coaching.”
Neutral zone play opened up in the third and the Nittany Lions threatened throughout the final period. Michigan answered the challenge, though, tightening up defensively and adding a pair of goals.
Penn State didn’t help itself in the third period either, conceding a long 5-on-3 power play for the Wolverines. A late goal simply wasn’t enough to climb out of the growing deficit.
It wasn’t always pretty, but Michigan played a resilient 60 minutes of hockey in State College. And they were victorious, despite the dejected Racine lying on the ice at the end of the first. It just wasn’t the same old story of the Nittany Lions frustrating the Wolverines.
Michigan and Penn State meet again Saturday night in Madison Square Garden in New York. Hopefully this time, the coaches can get to the bench.