NEW YORK — Saturday night, somewhere deep in the labyrinth of yellowed walls that crisscross the underbelly of Madison Square Garden, a few men stood tall in their black coats as Michigan hockey players high-stepped across an expansive concrete hangar. The staffers watched quietly as soft footsteps and biting commands from the coaching staff hung heavy in the air.
It sounded like anticipation.
Just two nights earlier, the Wolverines defeated No. 15 Penn State, 7-4, for their first road win over the Nittany Lions since the 2013-14 season. Freshman phenom forward Kyle Connor talked afterward about treating the “Super Saturday” matchup — which featured a basketball-hockey doubleheader at New York’s Madison Square Garden — like any other Big Ten game.
But that was before the plane touched down amid the skyline at sunset. It was before the team checked into the flashy hotel on 7th Avenue and before it stepped onto the ice under the retired jersey of New York Rangers captain Mark Messier hanging in the rafters.
Trying to block out the distractions is understandable, but this was more than a Big Ten game.
The hometown kids were up to the challenge.
Senior forward Boo Nieves, a New York Rangers prospect hailing from the eastern part of the state, made his mark first. With the Wolverines trailing early in the third, Nieves fielded the cross-ice pass from sophomore defender Sam Piazza and buried the puck into the netting. Nieves threw his hands to the air in what looked to be astonishment, and wheeled toward the crowd.
Tie game, 3-3.
Minutes later, Upper Saddle River, N.J., native and fellow senior Justin Selman beat Penn State’s netminder with a quick release before tumbling to his back and celebrating from the ice.
Michigan up, 4-3.
It wouldn’t get any closer than that. Michigan goaltender Steve Racine, hailing from Williamsville, N.Y., put on a show in the back half of the game. The senior stopped 11 third-period shots and didn’t allow a goal in the final 35 minutes. The Wolverines finished with a 6-3 victory and a statement win.
“We know if it’s not going to be you, it’ll be the guy next to you,” Selman said. “We have faith in that.”
This Michigan team has never been short on heroes. Early in the season, it was freshman Cooper Marody, obliterating expectations with 11 points in his first nine games. Then it was Connor and the first line’s turn, scoring at an unbelievable clip since the Great Lakes Invitational in December.
Saturday night, the seniors stepped up to lead a third-period turnaround with grit and tenacity.
“There is no question they’ve had their ups and downs,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “If you ask Boo how his game was here against Cornell in his freshman year, it wasn’t very good. He really was frustrated by being able to play in this venue against a tough team. And our team didn’t play well, Racine didn’t play well, Selman didn’t play well — but look at them now, they’re completely different players.”
If there was one Big Ten matchup to circle on the calendar, this was it. Penn State has been playing some of the best hockey in the conference all year, and the Nittany Lions have a recent history of playing upset to the Wolverines NCAA Tournament hopes.
But Michigan embraced the spotlight, playing like a team capable of winning a national championship. The Wolverines outscored Penn State, 13-7, during the series and seven different players recorded a tally.
After the weekend sweep, Michigan took control of the Big Ten lead and leapt to fourth place in the PairWise Rankings. But the sum of those parts doesn’t capture the impact of the win. It doesn’t capture the look of pure astonishment on Nieves face, or of Selman scoring the winning goal in front of throngs of friends and family.
The Wolverines needed a hero heading into the third period Saturday, and it could have been anyone. But the way it happened felt right.