DETROIT — Going into the weekend, there were questions as to how the No. 4 Michigan hockey team would handle the absence of its top four scorers.
On Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena, those questions were answered.
Even without sophomore defenseman Owen Power and sophomore forwards Matty Beniers, Kent Johnson and Brendan Brisson, the Wolverines put together an offensive onslaught to cruise past Michigan State, 7-3.
For much of the first period, the puck didn’t leave the Spartans’ defensive zone. Thanks in large part to a ferocious forecheck, Michigan controlled the tempo and possession. While they only generated nine shots, there was constant duress on the Michigan State defensemen. Senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg put on a skating clinic with the puck on his stick. Senior forwards Nolan Moyle and Garrett Van Wyhe both brought their physical play style with them to Detroit.
The upperclassmen that have been a part of this rivalry have grown accustomed to these types of tilts:
“It’s always physical, it’s always a hard game,” senior forward Jimmy Lambert said. “It doesn’t matter where we are in the standings or where they are in the standings, both teams always come to play.”
But most notably was the Wolverines’ second line where junior forward Johnny Beecher centered freshman forwards Dylan Duke and Mackie Samoskevich. Beyond the fact that Duke and Samoskevich each scored — Beecher also recorded an assist — the trio was dominant all night. Samoskevich’s skill, coupled with Duke and Beecher’s hard-nosed play allowed for quality time in the offensive zone.
One of Michigan’s greatest strengths this season has been its depth. Seemingly everyone who dresses has provided the Wolverines with quality minutes. Lambert doubled his season total with two scores of his own and junior forward Nick Granowicz had a tally. It’s efforts like these that make Michigan so dangerous.
So much of the opposing team’s attention is typically devoted to the big names: Beniers, Johnson and Brisson. But, when the middle and bottom six forwards are producing like this, the Wolverines are nearly unstoppable.
“Some guys have some bigger shoes to fill,” Lambert said. “Step up and play some different roles that they might not be playing. I wouldn’t say the energy’s any different, just bigger roles for every guy.”
Midway through the second period, Michigan faced a five minute penalty kill after freshman forward Mark Estapa was charged with boarding. For most teams, this would entail five minutes of conservative, tight defense.
But the Wolverines aren’t like most teams.
Even with only four skaters, they were continuously in attack mode. Freshman defenseman Luke Hughes — one of the main catalysts behind Michigan’s offensive performance — fed Lambert for his first goal. Just moments later, Granowicz struck the back of the net, too. Hughes ended the night with a goal and two assists, adding to his already historic rookie campaign.
He used his lightning-fast speed, soft hands and long reach to maintain the puck and skate circles around opponents. His partner, sophomore defenseman Jacob Truscott, also contributed to the offensive dominance. Both are great at holding the point and keeping the puck in the zone. On the rare occasion when the forecheck was unsuccessful, those two made sure that the Spartans didn’t get out in transition.
“Luke (Hughes) has become more reliable,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “He’s not made as many mistakes, playing more physical… He’s a heck of a talent.”
Despite the success, Pearson won’t let his squad get complacent.
“These players are on a mission,” Pearson said. “They’ll be ready to go Monday and they’ll be ready next Friday.”
When you bottle a team up like that for 40 minutes, frustration starts to boil. As the game wore on, tensions rose considerably. This played in the Wolverines’ favor as they kept up their relentless forecheck and won the tough, gritty battles down low.
Saturday’s seven-goal outburst signaled to other teams around the country that it really doesn’t matter who suits up for Michigan.
They’re all threats to score.