In potentially Berenson's last game at Yost, Wolverines cruise to victory

Saturday, March 12, 2016 - 9:44pm

As the number of games remaining on the Michigan hockey schedule has dwindled, a shroud of uncertainty has gradually begun to descend upon the Wolverines.

Unlike in recent years, it hasn’t been one about their NCAA Tournament fate. They will be among the 16-team field — that much is certain.

Rather, there have been questions about whether Saturday night’s regular-season finale against Penn State would be Michigan coach Red Berenson’s last time behind the bench at Yost Ice Arena — the place he has called home while building an illustrious 32-year career as the program’s patriarch.

But regardless of the rumors, the Wolverines made one thing certain: If this was their coach’s last game on home ice, he was going out in a fashion emblematic of his entire career.

Behind a dominant second-period effort and a lethal power-play performance, No. 9 Michigan cruised to a 6-1 victory against the 14th-ranked Nittany Lions (10-9-1-1 Big Ten, 20-12-4 overall).

The sweep was a much-needed result for Michigan, which was in the middle of a debilitating three-game skid entering the weekend.

“It’s important,” Berenson said. “We’ve been in different situations in different years. Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture momentum if you really haven’t earned it, and I think this team has earned it. We can talk about last week, and how we took a big step backwards. I thought this week we took a big step forward.”

Kyle Connor opened the scoring for the Wolverines (12-5-3-2, 22-7-5) in both the first and second period. The two finishes put the freshman forward at the 30-goal mark, and Connor is the first player in the nation to reach the milestone this year.

His second-period goal came in a way that has become all too familiar to opposing teams.

Six minutes into the frame, Michigan rotated the puck around its offensive zone on the power play until it landed on the stick of sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski. The blueliner dished a cross-ice pass to Connor, who fired a one-timer past Penn State goaltender Eamon McAdam.

The finish gave the Wolverines a 4-1 lead, and they didn’t take their foot off the pedal for the rest of the contest.

Just a minute and a half later, with Michigan still on the power play, junior forward JT Compher lit the lamp for his team once more. After two shots by Werenski and junior forward Tyler Motte, the puck laid in the crease, inches away from the goal line.

Compher cleaned up the garbage easily, and chased McAdam with the goal, as the Nittany Lions replaced him with Matthew Skoff.

Though the first frame featured three goals from Connor, junior forward Max Shuart and senior forward Boo Nieves, the Wolverines outdid their opening performance by every other measure in the second. Michigan finished the period with a 33-17 shot advantage, racked up five total minutes on the power play and commanded puck possession the entire way.

The Wolverines closed out their job from there, notching one more goal off the stick of Nieves in the third period and holding the Nittany Lions scoreless.

“Penn State is a team that we’ve struggled with over the years,” Nieves said. “This year, we’ve absolutely dominated them, which is a good feeling. To finish it off at the end of the regular season is definitely a huge confidence booster (heading into the Big Ten Tournament).”

Goaltender Steve Racine allowed his only goal in the first period after a shot took a series of deflections, but he had a night to remember regardless. He finished with 21 saves before Berenson pulled him with 11:51 to play in the third period, allowing the senior netminder to receive a standing ovation in his final game at Yost.

The horn sounded, and the stands began to ring out in unison, “Thank you, Red!”

“Well, they’re thanking me,” Berenson said. “But they don’t know and neither do I.”

That’s the last he mentioned of his possible retirement.

But after the Senior Night presentations, Berenson exited the ice. He started his walk toward the locker room at Yost Ice Arena for what may be the final time, with a scoreboard looming overhead, reading 6-1 in favor of his team.

With every step he took, it was hard not to remember his lasting creation — a program with two national titles, 11 Frozen Four appearances, 11 conference championships and 22 NCAA Tournament berths.

There’s no telling if the coming weeks will be his last push for postseason hardware.

But if tonight was Red Berenson’s goodbye, it sure was a sweet one.