On a night where the Michigan hockey team didn’t bring its best game, it still managed to get past Niagara 4-1. The Wolverines faced bad puck luck, received little help from the posts and kept the Purple Eagles around longer than expected. Even then, No. 4 Michigan (12-4-0 Overall, 5-3 Big Ten) completed the sweep against Niagara (2-8-2) Saturday night at Yost Ice Arena.
It may have won by three, but the game was not as easy as the box score indicated for the Wolverines.
Looking to build upon last night’s dominant victory, Michigan came out of the gates firing. Sophomore forward Kent Johnson nearly opened the scoring as he ringed the crossbar, only for sophomore forward Brendan Brisson to be denied by the post several minutes later.
The top line of Brisson, Johnson and fellow sophomore forward Matty Beniers looked poised as they skated circles around Niagara’s defensemen. Despite the abundance of opportunities, the beginning frame was marred by Wolverine errors.
“It wasn’t maybe our best game tonight, but I give Niagara a lot of credit,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “I don’t know if the football game zapped us of energy, but it just seemed like we didn’t have the same energy we usually do.”
Freshman forward Mark Estapa took a hooking penalty midway through the period. As he was about to be released, sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau followed suit with a hook of his own.
Michigan killed the brief 5-on-3 disadvantage and shortly thereafter, they were gifted with a two on zero breakaway. Junior forward Garrett Van Wyhe carried the puck with Beniers trailing. Van Wyhe played a cross-ice pass but Beniers — driving in on his backhand — was unable to collect the puck.
“I thought we were ready to play,” Pearson said. “We had some really good opportunities.”
Unfortunately for Pearson, Niagara took advantage of the blown opportunity and capitalized on the power play. Sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo handled the initial shot from the point, but a congregation of Purple Eagles collapsed in front of the net, with defenseman Josef Mysak burying the rebound.
Going into the intermission, the Wolverines looked like anything but the No. 4 team in the nation. Even though they controlled the tempo, they were plagued by sloppiness and an inability to finish scoring looks.
Early in the second period, Michigan continued to play down to its opponent. Sophomore defenseman Owen Power — who is typically excellent at maintaining possession — let a bouncing puck jump over his stick and onto a Niagara forward’s stick for a two-on-one rush. Portillo remained steady in net, but Power’s slip-up was one of many uncharacteristic plays for the Wolverines.
But, in the second period, Power’s blueline partner and senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg changed Michigan’s fortune.
Power had the puck in the offensive zone and passed on a good shot for an even better one. He fired the puck toward the net and off of Blankenburg’s skate into the net. With just under 11 minutes left in the period, the Wolverines had finally reached the back of the net.
At around the same time in the third period, the captain gave Michigan its first lead of the night. Brisson started the play right outside the Purple Eagles’ defensive zone and played a pass to Johnson down the left wing. Johnson skated in and fired a pass to Blankenburg, whose hard drive to the net was rewarded with an easy tap-in goal.
Blankenburg’s offensive prowess hasn’t gone unnoticed by Pearson:
“I’ve been suggesting to him that we might want to see him up at forward because he’s so good. We were kidding about that the last couple of weeks so maybe he’s taking that to heart and showing us he can produce some offense and playing on defense.”
Now up 2-1, the Wolverines finally seemed comfortable. Four minutes later, Niagara was called for hooking and Michigan decided to reinforce that comfort on the power play.
The trio of Johnson, Power and Beniers terrorized the Purple Eagle penalty kill, rifling the puck around the blue line and hash marks. Eventually, Power ripped a lower slapshot that hit off the goaltender’s pads. Freshman forward Dylan Duke, a constant presence in the corners and down low, found space and finished the rebound.
The Wolverines would add an empty net goal with under three minutes as Beniers shoved a backhanded shot into the top corner of the twine.
It was not their prettiest effort, but a win is a win, and considering the gauntlet that is Big Ten hockey, non-conference wins like these will be a tremendous help down the line.
“I think we just kept going, obviously a little bit frustrating at the start. . . We just got to keep battling through it,” Johnson added.