Anyone playing the Western Michigan hockey team knows they’ll have to earn every inch of ice. Through bruising hits and occasional stick work, the Broncos are known for locking down the ice and forcing teams to the outside. Hosting the Michigan hockey team on Saturday after falling 5-4 the night before, they leaned into that brand to try and take a series split.
Rutger McGroarty had other ideas.
“These guys are a tough team,” the freshman forward said after the game. “They like to play physical and especially in this barn, they get a lot of adrenaline when half the rink is students going nuts. So I think it was a man’s game today, and I think our team handled it well.”
If Saturday was truly a “man’s” game rather than a boys’ one, McGroarty was certainly the guy for the job. He notched his first career hat trick — all three goals scored on the power play — to lift his team over Western Michigan. In large part, that success stemmed from the location where he found that space.
On two of his goals, McGroarty dished the puck to his teammates and crashed the net, finding open space to lurk near the goal. Standing face-to-face with Broncos ready to take his head off, McGroarty remained undaunted. And by risking those pains, he escaped with two huge tallies.
But paying that physical toll hasn’t always been a strength of Michigan’s past iterations.
For instance, last season’s roster featured a top six dominated by playmakers and shooters, but not necessarily bruisers. Some checking forwards like now-sophomore forward Mark Estapa found ice time as the season wore on, but more often Michigan tried to counter checking teams with overwhelming speed. Against teams like Notre Dame and Western Michigan, it had to survive on the perimeter because its lack of physicality hurt its ability to penetrate down low.
This time around, McGroarty offers a skill set that can accomplish that task.
“He can play any type of game,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “He could play the physical game, he can play the rush game, he’s good down low in the corners using his big body. But he can get into high ice as well and just moving and working his feet away from the puck.”
As a point-per-game player, McGroarty’s nose for the net drives his production. On zone entries, he beelines toward the crease and circles around that space, staying open and making him a constant threat that opponents have to mark up on. But the key isn’t his ability to just be there; he’s also got the skills to convert those looks. The Wolverines arguably haven’t had someone with that combination of traits since forward Will Lockwood in 2020.
Nonetheless, that combo of offense and physicality corrects an archetypal problem with Wolverine teams that struggled against hard-nosed competition. That could become increasingly important as Michigan enters Big Ten play. Conference teams will charge high rent for ice near the net, and Michigan will have to find a way to pay the bill.
But with a power forward like Rutger McGroarty in the lineup, they’ve got a pretty good chance.