Wolverines handle Spartans, 5-1

Friday, February 14, 2020 - 8:24pm

EAST LANSING — Prior to Friday evening’s game, one might have thought goals would be hard to come by for the Michigan hockey team. 

In the Wolverines’ mid-November series against Michigan State, they got swept, going scoreless in the second game. And leading into Friday’s puck drop, Spartans’ goaltender John Lethemon boasted a .942 save percentage — the best in the nation.

But all that didn’t matter. Michigan’s offense thrived, helping the team run away with a 5-1 victory against Michigan State (14-14-1 overall, 10-8-1 Big Ten).

“I’m not surprised,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said about scoring five on Lethemon. “I’m not surprised. We have guys who can put the puck in the net. We talked about, it’s been well-documented, our lack of scoring in the first half, but we weren’t healthy. Now we’re getting healthy. Some things are going in. We’re getting some confidence. We got a number of guys who can score, so I’m not surprised.”

This game meant a lot to Pearson. So much so that he brought his team up to East Lansing the night before. He wanted to make clear how much this game mattered and wanted his players in the best environment to excel.

“It’s always nice when you don’t have to travel on a game day,” senior forward Jake Slaker said. “We got to do all our pregame stuff here and could just focus. No distractions, and I think it worked out for us tonight.”

A few minutes into the first period, the Wolverines (14-12-3, 9-8-2-1) started to spend considerable time in their own defensive zone. Some breakout struggles were apparent, as they had numerous turnovers.

But after a lengthy defensive stretch, Michigan caught a break. The team went on its first power play less than six minutes into the game, after forward Patrick Khodorenko got called for slashing. The Wolverines took that change of momentum and made the most of it.

Senior forward Will Lockwood got a pass from freshman defenseman Cam York by the left circle. He passed it to sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg in the high slot, who then sent it to the right circle where Slaker buried a one-timer 33 seconds into the power play.

“They haven’t given up a power play goal since I don’t know when,” Pearson said. “So we got off to a real good start.”

A couple minutes later, Michigan doubled its lead on the back of senior defenseman Luke Martin. York skated the puck behind Michigan State’s goal and soon connected with senior forward Nick Pastujov on the right side. Pastujov then swung the puck to the left circle, and Martin rocked a one-timer past Lethemon to make it 2-0. It was Martin’s first goal since his sophomore season and just the third of his career.

“It was nice to get the monkey off the back,” Martin said. “It was a great pass from Nick and a great play from Cam. It’s just nice to keep the momentum going and continue to keep our foot on the gas.”

The Wolverines received two more power plays in the opening frame, due to tripping and slashing calls. Unlike the opening power play, though, the Spartans killed both.

Michigan returned from intermission and matched its first period offensive production. 

It started 10 seconds after play resumed. Sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann settled the puck behind his net, then passed it along the boards to Martin. Martin then sent a long pass diagonally across center ice, and senior forward Jacob Hayhurst collected it just before his zone entry. Hayhurst then cut toward the net from the left side, brought the puck to his backhand and snuck it through Lethemon’s legs, giving Michigan a 3-0 lead and muting Munn Ice Arena.

And then with under eight to go in the second period, the Wolverines widened their lead to four goals. Junior forward Dakota Raabe got the puck near Michigan State’s goal and sent it to freshman defenseman Keaton Pehrson at the right side of the blue line. Pehrson slid the puck to his left. Sophomore defenseman Jack Summers took one touch to settle it, then rifled the puck into the bottom right corner.

Early in the final period, Michigan went on its first penalty kill of the night with York headed to the box for tripping. Finally getting the man advantage instead of giving it, the Spartans made the most of it. Nearing the end of the two minutes, defenseman Dennis Cesana passed to the crease from the right circle and forward Sam Saliba tapped it in to put the Spartans on the scoreboard.

With eight minutes left in the game, junior forward Luke Morgan fought for the puck at the left side of the crease and quickly passed it across to Slaker. Slaker capitalized, further fueling the momentous win and continuing the Wolverines’ streak in which they’ve now won 23 of the last 27 conference points.

“We’ve got an energy with us right now,” Martin said. “Wouldn’t want to be the next team on our run.”