Michigan blanks Michigan State, 3-0, in opening game of Big Ten Tournament

Friday, March 6, 2020 - 6:06pm

Jacob Hayhurst was waiting in the low slot at the front of the net — the graduate transfer forward’s usual position on Michigan’s top power play unit.

As he battled for position with Michigan State defenseman Dennis Cesana, Cesana brought his stick up and caught Hayhurst in the throat with the tip of his blade. Suddenly, what had been a normal five-on-four power play became more than a minute of a two-man advantage for the Wolverines.

Just over 30 seconds later, at the halfway point of the first period, senior forward Jake Slaker’s backdoor one-timer rifled past Michigan State goaltender John Lethemon to give Michigan the lead, 1-0.

One even-strength tip-in off Johnny Beecher’s skate and another power play tally — this time from senior forward Nick Pastujov — later, and the Wolverines (17-14-4 overall, 12-10-3-2 Big Ten) blanked the Spartans (15-8-2, 11-12-2), 3-0, to open the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal series.

“I really liked our start,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Thought we were ready to play. Forced the play. At one point, shots were 7-0. Getting the lead’s important against a team like this.”

The Wolverines’ defense effectively shut down Michigan State in the first period, allowing the Spartans just four shots. But in the second period, amid a myriad of penalties for the Wolverines, Michigan State kept pressuring and put up 15 total shots — though none found the back of the net, as sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann came up with the save every time.

Michigan’s penalty kill allowed six shots across three power play chances for the Spartans in the second, and all three penalties came in just eight minutes of game time.

“They did a good job,” Michigan State coach Danton Cole said. “They had good sticks, they pressure when it was the right time to pressure, they get in lanes, they blocked it and they made it hard to get the puck to the net. They did a nice job and they’re jumping it and taking things away.”

Being on the penalty kill typically saps momentum from a team as the opponent starts to string offensive chances together, but Michigan fed off its success on the kill to build momentum in a period where it originally had little.

The Wolverines were able to add two goals in the second to make it 3-0 heading into the third — a striking turn given the relative lack of momentum Michigan had in the second period. Early in the period, senior defenseman Luke Martin fired a shot toward Lethemon that Hayhurst tipped in front. The puck bounced off freshman forward Johnny Beecher’s skate and into the net.

And with just seven seconds left in the period, Pastujov’s sharp-angle tally off a faceoff win by sophomore forward Jimmy Lambert sent the Wolverines to the locker room with all the momentum.

“That was huge, especially with 10 seconds left where everyone’s just kind of settling in getting ready to go into the locker room up two or down two,” Pastujov said. “Three is just such a dagger, especially late like that. It kind of changes your whole mindset going into the third.”

But despite gaining momentum late in the second, Pearson felt uneasy when he came down the stairs for the final period. He knew that all it would take was a well-placed shot or two to get the Spartans right back into contention.

And when the period started, it was Michigan State that looked ready to go. The Spartans hemmed the Wolverines in their own zone early and didn’t allow them to get going offensively — leading to Michigan tallying just five shots in the period.

Part of that comes from the Wolverines sitting back to defend their lead and not pushing the pace, but part of that also comes from Michigan State taking the ice in the third with plenty of motivation.

“I think we took our foot off the gas,” Pearson said. “We got a little too cute at times and they were pressing. They pressed us right off the get-go in that third period. I just did not like our intensity to start.”

But in the end, despite the Spartans pressuring in the third, they only mustered six shots on goal out of 17 total attempts. Mann made the saves when it was required of him and came away with his fifth shutout of the season — good for second-most in the country.

Behind Mann’s performance in net, Michigan held on to take the win in the series opener and is now in position to advance to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament with a win Saturday night.

“We have to play better,” Pearson said. “That’s the message. You can’t be satisfied. You can never be — you can be happy we won the game, but you’re not satisfied until you get the job done.”