KALAMAZOO, MI — In any rivalry game — even for an emerging one — emotional control can decide the game.
That much proved true on Saturday as the No. 4 Michigan hockey team (7-1 overall) took on No. 17 Western Michigan (5-4), winning an emotional overtime affair, 6-5. The Wolverines’ ability to maximize their power play chances made up for issues at even strength, teeing up the opportunity for sophomore defenseman Luke Hughes to call game in overtime.
“We just talked about outnumbering and converging to the net and delivering pucks,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said of the power play success. “Almost more simple than in the past, and simple works.”
From the opening puck drop, the Broncos’ physical play shined. Finishing checks with authority, their forecheckers forced Michigan’s play to the perimeter and bogged down transition play. But eventually, that tenacity led to penalties, giving two nearly back-to-back power plays to the Wolverines.
On both tries, Michigan’s second power play unit — featuring physical impact players like freshman forward Rutger McGroarty and sophomore forward Dylan Duke — made an impact. McGroarty scored his first power play tally on the last second of the first chance and scored seven seconds into the next. Each time, the unit found open space down low in the face of Western Michigan’s unrelenting attack.
“(McGroarty has) always been able to score in every area of the ice,” freshman defenseman Seamus Casey said. “He always seems to be alone. Just knowing that he’s going to be somewhere and try to find a way to get him the puck, and I know we’re gonna have a good chance.”
With that success, the Wolverines leaned into the physical unit. After the first goal, they set a tone before the skill-laden first unit took the ice. For most of Michigan’s other units, the Broncos’ physical play ramped up the pace of play and led to mistakes. The second power play didn’t have those struggles. That resulted in a power play hat trick by McGroarty as the Wolverines went 4-for-5 on the man advantage. On their one empty attempt, they scored the very second that penalty ended.
But outside of those power plays, Michigan struggled to find a rhythm. In a game full of penalties drawn out by the intensity of the game, the Wolverines found themselves in the box eight times and coughed up more than 22 shots on the penalty kill. In total, Western Michigan outshot them a gaudy 45-28. Without stellar play by junior goaltender Erik Portillo, the Broncos would have scored more than just two of their own power play attempts.
“Similar to our success on the power play, they just do a really good job of trying to outnumber at the net and get those dirty goals,” Naurato said.
Added McGroarty: “They had a good attack mentality tonight,” McGroarty said. “I think they’ve got a good power play and we knew that coming in, and I think they just attacked.”
In the end, Michigan’s power play set the table for their win — and series sweep — over the Broncos. In overtime, sophomore defenseman Luke Hughes raced down the ice and potted the OT game-winner, skating to the opposing student section with a bow.
Without the heavy lifting of Michigan’s lethal power play, that moment never could have come.