It was a rollercoaster tournament, but the Michigan hockey team got the result it wanted, leaving Joe Louis Arena as Great Lakes Invitational champions for the second year straight. Through two games, the play was at times pretty, at others gritty and nearly always entertaining.
Wednesday’s 4-2, come-from-behind win over a competitive Michigan Tech (11-7-2) squad included several show-stopping defensive stands, but relatively tame bursts of offense. It was the second game in a row that Michigan recorded less than its average of 4.35 goals per game.
With the 10th-ranked Wolverines still missing their top two defenders — junior Michael Downing was serving the second game of a two-game suspension while sophomore Zach Werenski was in Finland captaining the U.S. team at the IIHF World Junior Championship — it might have been reasonable to expect high-scoring contests.
Instead, the tournament was largely fought in the defensive zone. It took a late empty-netter from sophomore defenseman Sam Piazza to push Michigan (2-1-1 Big Ten, 11-3-3 overall) to tally four goals on the night.
But early on in the final game, everything nearly unraveled for the Wolverines against the Huskies.
Michigan took the ice searching for a sense of urgency — in the first period, it was clear the team didn’t know where to begin looking.
Michigan Tech took the lead, and all the momentum, just three minutes into the game on a goal from Jake Jackson that beat senior goaltender Steve Racine on the short side. It was the first registered shot for the Huskies.
In last year’s tournament, Racine received MVP honors as the Wolverines defeated Michigan State. It was a statement win for Michigan and a turning point in the season.
Wednesday, the senior appeared to be headed in a different direction all together, and quickly.
Michigan Tech’s Mark Auk added another goal to put the Wolverines in a 0-2 hole. The early collapse was reminiscent of other disappointing performances this season and was marked by tentative play in both ends.
In the second period, Michigan finally found the next gear. Bodies flew into the corner and forwards crashed the net with abandon. Standout freshman forward Kyle Connor was one of the only players generating chances in the first, but the entire Michigan offense came alive after the intermission.
Michigan netted two goals in first seven minutes of the period, evening the score on tallies from sophomore Tony Calderone and junior Tyler Motte. Connor continued his impressive weekend, bringing his total to three points in the tournament and earning MVP honors.
Despite a tightly contested finish to the period, the Wolverines broke through and netted the game-winning goal with less than a minute to play. The rush started out of the defensive end as Piazza advanced the puck to senior forward Boo Nieves in the neutral zone. The dynamic attack and fluid passing was a perfect example of Michigan’s offense in top form.
Junior forward Alex Kile found the rebound in front and blew it past the Huskies’ goaltender. The one-goal lead held through a defensive third period.
Racine turned his game around in the third, stopping 27 shots in total and later being named to the all-tournament team. To be sure, there were avoidable mishaps here and there, but the senior stepped out to challenge pucks and aggressively protect his crease.
After the empty-net goal sealed Michigan’s 17th tournament championship, the team poured onto the ice with all smiles. The win didn’t come easily, but it was a gutsy performance that the Wolverines will gladly let ring in the new year.