Before the Michigan hockey team scored six goals against Michigan State on Saturday to bring its weekend total to 15, before the Wolverines erased their one-goal deficit, before they even made their first line change, they set the tone for how the game was going to go.
In the first shift, Michigan State’s Mason Appleton had Michigan junior forward Tyler Motte lying on the ice in the corner of the Wolverines’ zone. Junior defenseman Nolan De Jong tried to pry Appleton off, but Appleton took his time getting up. When Motte finally got back on his feet, he and Appleton were still tangled up — and Motte flipped Appleton over on his backside.
Sixty minutes, 12 penalties and nine goals later, that moment felt insignificant. But it embodied the rest of the game: tight, physical and intense. By the final buzzer, Michigan had done what it hasn’t been able to do all season. It dominated not one but both games of the series, asserting superiority over its in-state rival.
The Wolverines emerged from the scrum the same way Motte did — skating away, with the opponent lying there on the ice.
“I like the fact that our team can play from behind and continue to play our game,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “And when the puck starts going in, we can take a team right out of the game.”
Was Michigan the better team? Absolutely. Should the Wolverines have expected to dominate a less talented Michigan State team? Probably. Would a hard-fought performance against a top-tier opponent have been better for Michigan’s NCAA Tournament resume? Sure.
But this week, Michigan State was on the schedule, so all the Wolverines could do was keep rolling at their rival’s expense.
The last time Michigan played the Spartans in a two-game series was last March. The Wolverines were the better team, just like this season. They went up to East Lansing on a Friday and took care of business, 5-3.
Then, they returned to Ann Arbor needing a Saturday win to share the Big Ten title with Minnesota and earn a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. Instead, Michigan State goaltender Jake Hildebrand stopped 37 shots, and the Spartans escaped with a 2-1 upset. The Wolverines had to win three games in three days the following weekend to make the NCAA Tournament, and they fell short. Perhaps with a sweep of Michigan State and a bye in the tournament, things would have been different.
The sluggish Saturday performances recurred in the first half of this season. Going into this weekend, in six two-game series, Michigan had dominated its opponents by a combined score of 34-17 in the series openers but had been outscored 18-16 in the finales.
Saturday’s game began to show similar signs. The Wolverines gave up the first goal after just 4:27 and remained behind for most of the first period.
But they tied the game toward the end of the first, took control in the second and coasted in the third. In the end, the better team won. And given how Michigan has played against lesser opponents this season — dropping a Saturday game against Robert Morris, 4-0, and tying another against Dartmouth a month later — that’s no small feat.
“Our best players are our best players,” Berenson said. “They’re showing up every night.”
After his team bludgeoned Michigan State on Friday, 9-2, Berenson challenged his players to respond with another good performance the next night. While they didn’t put together their prettiest game, they passed Berenson’s test. And they had fun doing it.
For Michigan’s first goal Friday, junior forward JT Compher picked up a turnover, skated in from the corner and hammered a shot over Hildebrand’s shoulder. Saturday, sophomore forward Dexter Dancs took a pass from behind the net and slid it through Hildebrand’s legs. And finally, with the game starting to get out of hand, sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski joined in on the action.
The Columbus Dispatch reported last week that Werenski was unhappy at Michigan and thinking of turning pro. Werenski saw the rumor on Twitter while in Finland at the World Junior Championships. He refuted it after the game Friday and again during the game Saturday. Midway through the second period, he skated toward Hildebrand and flicked in a wrist shot from the slot, then turned back toward the Children of Yost and played the violin on his arm with his stick.
He certainly appeared to be having fun. So did everyone else at Yost Ice Arena. The Wolverines led, 4-1.
That’s all the weekend seemed to be about. Michigan did little to bolster its postseason resume, save for avoiding a crushing loss. It had a large margin for error, so any small mistakes played little role in the final outcome. It wasn’t a turning point, and it wasn’t a highlight game. It wasn’t Penn State, and it wasn’t Minnesota. But it was Michigan State, and it was fun.
So while the win shouldn’t be overstated, it shouldn’t be understated, either. Not every weekend can be a statement win. Sometimes you just cruise onto the next one, leaving your in-state rival lying on the ice.