For the first time in 574 days, the Michigan hockey team played in front of a packed Yost Ice Arena. A sea of maize and blue flooded the stands, eager to watch their team play live, and the Wolverines quickly gave the fans something to cheer about.
Just 1:28 minutes into the first period, sophomore forward Kent Johnson opened the scoring on a breakaway. After a terrific feed from fellow sophomore forward Matty Beniers, Johnson was free to beat the goaltender glove side low. The combo keyed the rest of the game, one where the top-five draft picks put on a show tonight, constantly producing on both ends of the ice.
That combination led to the Wolverines dominating the Bowling Green Falcons in every facet of the game, cruising to a 7-1 victory in the exhibition.
“It’s a definite baseline,” coach Mel Pearson said. “They’re a good team, well-coached, they play hard. It’s really good for us, some really good teaching points and we’re gonna take a lot out of this game.”
Michigan continued to exert its dominance well into the first period. Nine minutes after Johnson’s goal, the Wolverines were gifted with a power play. Pearson sent out five of his fantastic sophomores, who soon delivered on special teams. Sophomore defenseman Owen Power faked a shot and slid a pass across to sophomore forward Brendan Brisson, who sniped a one-timer past the Falcons’ goaltender with 9:20 left.
Before the crowd could process what happened, Brisson found the back of the net again 22 seconds later. Sophomore forward Thom Bordeleau gave a beautiful drop pass to Brisson, who went upstairs with the shot.
“When you got four other guys that move the puck like how they do, it’s pretty easy to get open,” Brisson said. “Once the puck gets to me it’s up to me to put it in the net or to make a play.”
The linemates showed incredible chemistry against Bowling Green, consistently entering the offensive zone and generating chances for each other. This was a common theme for Michigan on the night. They kept the puck in the Falcons’ defensive zone for much of the first two periods, mostly due to a relentless forecheck. They looked comfortable with the puck and with 44 shots, made life miserable for their opponent.
The Wolverines did not finish there, though, extending their lead to 4-0 with 48 seconds remaining in the period. Freshman defenseman Luke Hughes carried the puck through the neutral zone and made a nifty entry pass. From there, senior forward Jimmy Lambert collected a rebound and slammed the puck home.
“Our team is really skilled offensively and I feel like everybody knows that,” Brisson said. “We want to play a 200-foot game and just be good in the defensive zone so we can get the offense going.”
Up 4-0, Michigan entered the second period with a comfortable margin. While some teams may have sat back and played more conservatively, Pearson had other ideas. The Wolverines came out firing with an abundance of big hits and physical play.
Senior defenseman and captain Nick Blankenburg entered the box score not once, but twice. His first goal came 8:35 into the second period. While controlling the puck on the power play, Blankenburg found room in the high slot and fired one home. A few minutes later, Blankenburg became the beneficiary of a great neutral zone pass from Johnson. He skated down the right wing, battled off a defender, and ripped one by the goaltender’s blocker.
The Wolverines’ offense had no problems and they were aided by a strong defensive effort.
Sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo saved 17 shots in 41 minutes of action. Portillo, along with a stout performance from his blueliners, held Bowling Green scoreless for most of the game. Senior goaltender Jack Leavy relived Portillo and shortly gave up a rebound goal. Aside from that, however, the back end was difficult to penetrate.
“For all the (defense) I thought they did a really good job tonight,” Blankenburg said. “Just playing aggressive and it makes it really easy when we have guys backchecking. When we don’t have the puck we want to get it back.”
The exhibition went as well as possible for Michigan, who face Lake Superior State at home next weekend in their season-opening series. Their first real game should be more telling of the team’s prospects this year.
Pearson added: “This was a starting point for our team this year which we hope to have a very successful season.”