Wolverines escape Mercyhurst late

Friday, October 16, 2015 - 10:07pm

Nine minutes into the first period, a referee glided out to center ice after an official review and extended his arm towards Michigan’s net. Goal, Mercyhurst. Two to one, Mercyhurst.

The regular season couldn’t have started much worse for the Wolverines, but they were determined not to let Friday night end that way. Playing from behind all night, the home team relied on grit and desperation to close out a season-opening win against the Lakers, 6-4.

Michigan (1-0) came out flat-footed in the first period. The Wolverines moved the puck quickly and found open looks at the net, but consistently let odd-man rushes blow by them on the defensive end.

Cristobal “Boo” Nieves found the net after four minutes to open up the scoring, but it did not signal a hot start for Michigan. Instead, the offense and defense looked out of sync and senior goaltender Steve Racine looked less than comfortable in net.

Junior forward JT Compher’s line set the tone early, playing with poise and an extra level of intensity. Compher in particular was a hawk on opposing defenders, unafraid to throw his body around and difficult to knock off the puck.

The rest of the offense left something to be desired, falling too deep in the offensive zone and providing little support for defenders.

Mercyhurst (2-0 Atlantic Hockey Conference, 3-2 overall) responded to Nieves’ goal quickly, scoring twice in roughly three minutes. The first goal came off an odd-man rush on freshman defenseman Nicholas Boka. Boka didn’t play his best hockey before turning things around in the third period, but the first goal was squarely on Racine. The Lakers’ Kyle Cook took the puck wide and sent a hard slapshot wide over the goaltender’s pad. It was a good shot, but one that Racine should want back.

That would be the last time Michigan led until early in the third period.

The big question for the weekend was answered Thursday when Red Berenson announced that Racine would start over junior Zach Nagelvoort. Friday’s game did little to create a more permanent resolution. Racine looked uncomfortable with the puck, misplaying routine passes and rarely inspiring confidence.

Racine improved as the game went on, eventually stopping 26 shots in total, but never looked like a veteran starting goaltender.

Mercyhurst scored again after a scrap in in front of the Michigan net during 4-on-4 play, and Kyle Connor added a breakaway goal from before the end of the period to tie it up.

By the end of the first, it was clear the floodgates were open at Yost.

The Lakers scored four times in all, adding two second period goals off rookie mistakes by Boka and junior defenseman Nolan De Jong. Boka scored what amounted to an own goal when the puck ricocheted off his foot into the Michigan net. Later in the second, De Jong turned the puck over to a Mercyhurst defenseman who went bar down from the point.

“Giving up four goals in two periods at home is unacceptable,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We’ve got to play better defensively, we’ve got to read the rushes better and so on.”

Each time the Lakers scored, though, the Wolverines responded with a goal of their own, never letting the deficit grow to more than one. For much of the game, Michigan outshot and outhustled Mercyhurst, only to be stopped by an inability to handle the counterattack.

Sophomore forward Tony Calderone scored on a pretty play with 6:30 to go in the second. Freshman forward Cooper Marody won a battle in the corner and kicked the puck out to a wheeling Calderone. Freshman linemate Brendan Warren set a great screen, and Calderone blasted the puck past the Laker’s goalie.

Calderone added a second goal later in the period and Michigan went into the third period tied, 4-4.

Mercyhurst’s strategy frustrated the Wolverines all night. Playing high in the offensive zone to prevent any odd-man rushes, the Lakers successfully used the counterattack to wreak havoc on the Wolverines’ defense through the first two periods.

Michigan finally took the lead again early in the third with a goal from senior forward Tyler Motte. Compher won the draw to Motte who finessed it through traffic into the upper left corner.

“My old coach ... used to go by a saying — they don't ask how pretty, they ask how many,” Motte said. 

The Lakers didn’t have anything left in the tank to answer that goal, and the Wolverines escaped the season opener with a win. It was ugly, but Michigan could leave the ice breathing easy.