EAST LANSING — With four and a half minutes remaining in regulation and the score tied at one, sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne stared across the ice at his counterpart, John Lethemon, knowing that one would see the other let in the game-winning tally.
But that wouldn’t happen until the shootout, in which senior forward Tony Calderone went up and over Lethemon’s shoulder to steal the victory from the Spartans.
“Yeah, the win’s big, but I think a lot of the guys in the room wished to have won it in regulation and get that extra point,” Calderone said. “But I like our third, our third was really good we worked hard, we did all the little things right.”
The last time the No. 19 Michigan hockey team (8-10-3-2 Big Ten, 13-13-3 overall) was in the Munn Ice Arena on Dec. 8, it suffered an embarrassing 5-0 loss. Michigan State forwards Patrick Khodorenko and Mitch Lewandowski skated all over the Wolverines, netting three goals in the process.
This time, it was different. The Spartans (4-13-2-1, 10-17-2) sit at dead last in the Big Ten, and Michigan most likely needs to win out in order to keep postseason hopes alive. And heading into the third period with the game tied at one, the stage was set.
In accordance with the offensive changes that Michigan coach Mel Pearson has been trying out, junior left wing Brendan Warren joined senior right wing Tony Calderone and fellow junior center Cooper Marody on the first line, breaking up a highly-effective line that previously featured senior left wing Dexter Dancs.
“We were messing around, we were just trying to find some combinations and not really burn anyone out for tomorrow even though we could make some changes,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “But I thought they did a good job, I thought they handled things extremely well.”
While it did seem odd to be breaking up the team’s most productive offensive force, clearly Pearson wanted a spark from the new line combinations.
That spark wasn’t evident early in the game, though, and Michigan seemed to sink back into old habits.
“They understand how we need to play day in and day out,” Pearson said. “ … You have to understand how you have to play with that energy and that discipline and smarts and that sense of urgency, you need it all, and at times we got away from that.”
Only 7:30 into the first period, junior Joseph Cecconi crunched forward Jake Smith into the boards, receiving a five-minute major penalty with a game misconduct charge, rendering him out for the rest of the game.
“It’s big, I mean he’s a huge part of our team,” Calderone said. “But I don’t think we all agreed with the call, but that happens sometimes, so it was the next man up, Cutler went back there and played ‘D’ and played really well.”
Without arguably one of the more talented Wolverines’ defenseman, senior Cutler Martin would have to move from left wing to defense to account for the vacancy.
After 12 total shots total from both teams in the opening period, neither team could get on the board. A stark power-play defense from Michigan defined the frame, as Lavigne’s outstanding blocker save prevented a Spartan advantage.
Immediately following five minutes of a similar lull, and freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes broke the silence by picking up the puck in the slot, handily deking Lethemon and delivering a back-handed goal to grant Michigan the advantage.
But just when the Wolverines were getting comfortable with a lead, defenseman Carson Gatt punched in a one-timer afforded to him by a perfectly timed Spartan counterattack to level the score at one goal apiece.
The rest of the second period after the Michigan State equalizer could only be described as quiet. In an effort to spur more offense, Pearson reinstated the top line of Calderone, Marody and Dancs, but even they couldn’t reestablish Michigan’s lead.
A rivalry matchup. An underdog in the Spartans. A late-season game with the postseason on the line. It was all coming to a head in what was sure to be a climactic third period.
5:41 into the final period, a holding call on Lewandowski granted the Wolverines a chance to gain the lead on the man advantage. But Michigan couldn’t find its way into the net, as turnovers and awkward chances defined the power play opportunity.
Even though it outshot Michigan State, 37-16, the Wolverines couldn’t convert to take the advantage in regulation. In the first overtime period, both teams traded dangerously fatal shot attempts, but neither Michigan nor the Spartans could find twine.
And it took Calderone’s goal to seal the game.