Wolverines rewarded from solid third period play, guided to weekend sweep
As the horn sounded at the end of the first period Friday night, freshman forward Josh Norris was down on the ice and unable to stand. He had been blindsided by a Vermont player between the circles and was writhing in pain. Norris couldn’t walk off under his own strength. With his arms wrapped around two teammates’ shoulders, he skated off to the dressing room, having only a missed penalty shot to show for it.
Fast forward to under five minutes into the third period, and the Michigan hockey team was up 2-0. Having shrugged off the pain, Norris received a leading pass in the middle of the ice from sophomore forward Jake Slaker and found himself one-on-one against Vermont goaltender Stefanos Lekkas. The left-hander wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, decking the netminder and driving the puck into the net, glove side. Less than three minutes later, Norris scored his second goal, a backhander in front of the net off a pass from fellow freshman Quinn Hughes.
Bouncing back from an underwhelming first two periods in a game the Wolverines eventually won 4-1 on Friday, Norris became the first Michigan player to score twice in his home debut since Kyle Connor in 2015.
Saturday night was a different story for Norris and the Wolverines, entering the final period trailing 2-1. With limited shots on goal through two periods, Michigan was 20 minutes away from splitting its second series in as many weekends. Skating off the ice after the second period, the Wolverines were visibly frustrated about failing to capitalize on scoring chances.
But with under five minutes to go in the third, Slaker stepped up when his team needed it the most, scoring the equalizer from the right faceoff circle to tie the game at two. Then, with just 54 seconds left, Slaker delivered another wrist shot that sailed into the back of the net to clinch Michigan’s third win and first weekend sweep on the season.
“It’s good they get rewarded for staying with the game plan and hanging in there,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson after Saturday’s victory. “Our third periods have been pretty good this year so far, so it’s good to see that we’re a third-period team.”
Norris and Slaker followed eerily parallel paths in consecutive games. After four straight periods without a goal, the 18-year-old Norris had to mentally put aside his disappointing start and refocus before he finally broke through. Less than 24 hours later, Slaker also had to discard from his mind the uninspiring hockey played through the first two periods to get the offense back on track.
“I think you just have to keep pressing,” Norris said Friday. “I was frustrated with myself, had some really good opportunities in the first and second. My teammates made some great plays and I wasn’t converting, so I knew I had to bear down and eventually I knew something was going to go in, so I was happy that happened in the third.”
Added Slaker on Saturday: “We just try to stay focused and it doesn’t matter if they score within the first five minutes or in the first 20, we still have 40 minutes left to play after that. … We just keep playing our game.”
Pearson’s praise of the two was oddly parallel, too.
“(Norris) stepped his game up even from two weeks ago,” Pearson said. “He looks like a different player than he was. … He’s a character kid, he’s got a lot of character. I thought he had a strong game. He plays both ends of the rink and he got rewarded.”
One night later, the same could be said about Slaker.
“You see what Jake’s all about, he can play any way you want,” Pearson said. “He can play a skill game, he can play a physical game, he can play a skating game, he’s got it all. He’s one of our hardest workers in practice and in games, so it was nice for him to get rewarded.”
Pearson emphasized the word “rewarded” countless times following both Friday and Saturday’s contests against Vermont. For Norris, Slaker and the entire team, Pearson chalked the victories up to being rewarded for hard work on both sides of the ice, playing through adversity and for sticking to the game plan.
Pearson admits that some nights the puck simply doesn’t bounce in his team’s favor. But he also knows that if the Wolverines can continue to dig deep and fight past early setbacks, it’s the later moments of the game when they will capitalize and squeeze out important wins. And if they can do that, they will certainly be rewarded.