Wolverines outlast Badgers in whirlwind conference tournament opener
After a five-year hiatus, postseason hockey made its return to Yost Ice Arena Friday night. The Michigan and Wisconsin hockey teams made sure the wait was worth it.
Eight minutes into the first period, Badger forward Ryan Wagner snatched a turnover deep in the Wolverine zone, floated into the slot and ripped the puck top-shelf past sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne for a 3-1 lead.
Ten minutes later, Michigan was back in front.
Welcome to March.
There’s no lack of words one could use to describe Friday’s contest — “absurd,” “insane” or “bonkers” are just a few that work nicely — but once the dust had settled, the Wolverines needed only one: “win.” To be specific, a 6-5 win, earned through senior forward Tony Calderone’s career-high four goals and Lavigne’s own career-high of 48 saves, and a win that gave Michigan a 1-0 lead over Wisconsin in the best-of-three quarterfinal series of the Big Ten Tournament.
Originally, Wisconsin believed it had struck first when Lavigne failed to control a rebound and Badger forward Matthew Freytag made him pay. However, Lavigne was ruled to have been interfered with during the previous fight for the loose puck.
It was the Wolverines, then, who took the driver’s seat early. On the rush, junior forward Cooper Marody sauced a pass between two Badgers, finding Calderone in his shooting pocket. The captain took as much time as he needed before coolly firing the puck past Kyle Hayton for a 1-0 lead, 2:40 into the game.
But the next five minutes would be a nightmare harkening back to the early months of the Wolverines’ season, in which they seemingly had no idea how to hold onto or clear the puck in their defensive zone. Wisconsin defenseman Tyler Imamoto found twine from the left point on a shot that Lavigne never saw. Three minutes later, Freytag scored on a play almost exactly like his first “goal,” right down to another review. This time, it went in the Badgers’ favor.
At one point, Wisconsin led in shots, 11-1. Badger attackers skated into the slot with no sign of resistance, while Michigan couldn’t stop coughing up possession. After Wagner’s goal, the punch-drunk Wolverines staggered towards the bench during a media timeout, hoping for something — anything — to stem the tide.
“We hadn’t played yet,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “We hadn’t played. We were just out there as spectators. They should have charged us for admission tonight to come into the building … Our mindset wasn’t where we need to be, and that’s on me.”
Twelve minutes into the game, Badger forward Linus Weissbach went to the penalty box for slashing. If the Wolverines wanted to get back in the game, they would need to do it with their maligned, 49th-ranked power play. Not exactly promising, but it would have to work.
Amazingly, it did — better than even Michigan likely considered possible.
Halfway through Weissbach’s penalty, junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi shuttled the puck cross-ice for freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes. Hughes stepped into a one-timer, and Calderone got a stick on it to bring the Wolverines within one goal.
Two minutes after Calderone’s second goal, Wisconsin defenseman Tim Davison was hit with an interference penalty. Again, Michigan took advantage, as senior defenseman Sam Piazza sliced a pass through the slot to sophomore forward Jake Slaker, who wound up for a one-timer. Tie game.
The Badgers had to be at least a little bit flustered, if not stunned, and it appeared to show when they were caught with too many players on the ice. On the man advantage, Marody paced himself down the right wing and found Hughes near the blue line. With a toe-drag, Hughes took Wisconsin forward Seamus Malone out of the play, and then knifed it home for a 4-3 lead.
Despite a 19-11 shot deficit after the first period, the Wolverines’ special teams prowess continued after intermission. With 30 seconds to go on Michigan’s fourth power play, Hughes set outside the right circle, slid the puck into the slot, and an unchecked Calderone dropped to one knee as he ripped home a one-timer for a two-goal lead and his second hat trick of the season. A left-for-dead power play had brought Michigan back to life.
It wasn’t all rosy for the Wolverines’ special teams, though. Their penalty kill is even worse than their power play, sitting at 54th in the country coming into Friday night. The Badgers would expose that fact in the second period.
The momentum began to shift back to Wisconsin’s side when Michigan forward Brendan Warren was disqualified for contact to the head, earning a five-minute major to boot. Exactly midway through the period, Weissbach’s drive from the blue line halved the Badgers’ deficit.
Not unexpectedly, the game started to take on a chippier tone from that point. Weissbach, just two minutes after his goal, received a 10-minute misconduct, and thirty seconds after that, both Hughes and Wisconsin forward Tarek Baker were handed roughing penalties.
After Nick Pastujov elbowed a Badger right at the close of the second period, a skirmish took place, sending the sophomore forward to the box. When Pastujov returned to the ice, it was too late — Wagner notched his second goal 73 seconds into the final stanza.
But Michigan had a response, led by exactly who you might expect. With nine minutes to play, Marody, from behind the net, played the puck off Hayton’s pads. The target of Marody’s pass — really, who else could it be but Calderone? — jammed home the rebound to put the Wolverines up, 6-5.
Only fitting, maybe, that Calderone’s fourth goal, in one of the senior captain’s last appearances at Yost, would prove to be the game-winner.
But in typical Tony Calderone fashion, he refused to take the credit he deserved, even after a career-defining performance when his team needed it most.
“If you watch my replay I did not a lot,” he said. “Quinn made a nice pass to me on my third one, Quinn shot on my second one, Coop found me on my first one, fourth one again Coop intentionally passed it off the pad … those guys were great tonight and they made my job easy.”
As a team, though, Michigan’s job was the exact opposite of easy. The Wolverines were outshot in every period, and for the game by a total of 53-29. Wisconsin never looked fazed — neither during or after Michigan’s power play surge — and continued to control possession and game flow.
But despite all of that, the Wolverines came away victorious. Just one more bit of absurdity to add to an insane game.
“We were very fortunate to win this game tonight,” Pearson said. “The power play that’s been average as of late really bailed us out in this game and we took advantage of the calls we got. And Hayden — you think a guy gave up five goals, maybe had a tough night, but I thought he played excellent tonight. We were outplayed, we were outplayed in a lot of different facets of the game tonight, very fortunate to come away with it.”
Added Marody: “It was clear that what was going on was unacceptable for how we talked about playing. Sometimes it’s good to get a little wake up call, and I think after that our team responded fairly well. We got the outcome we wanted, but we know that we’ll have to be a lot better tomorrow.”