STATE COLLEGE — Thursday night, the No. 2 ranked Michigan (9-2-0 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) hockey team entered one of the most hostile environments in the nation at Pegula Ice Arena to face off against No. 19 ranked Penn State (6-4-0, 0-3). The Wolverines gave one of their most complete performances of the season, bullying their way to a 5-1 victory.
After half a period of frustration — largely due to the Nittany Lions’ defense — Michigan finally had an opportunity on the power play. They generated some good looks, but the best chance came for the penalty killers. Penn State entered the zone with a two on one and the puck carrier fired a shot off of sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo’s leg. The rebound found a trailing forward’s stick and Portillo made a sprawling, miraculous cross-crease save to preserve the 0-0 tie.
“Erik Portillo, big saves on the shorthand, and that was one of the keys of the game,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “He was outstanding today. He’s been really good all year. We relied on him too much, but I thought some of our top players really made a difference tonight.
The packed crowd at Pegula responded with a sigh of disappointment. A few minutes later, the sighs turned into silence.
With under three minutes in the period, freshman forward Dylan Duke got the offense going. After a hard forecheck behind the net, he found graduate forward Luke Morgan wide open for the wrist shot score. Morgan’s second tally in as many games is a testament to the Wolverines’ depth. On a night where the Nittany Lions were packed defensively, it took a team effort to create scoring chances.
“Once we simplified it we got pucks behind them, I felt we were much more effective,” Pearson said. “Power play was obviously an x-factor tonight.”
Michigan’s second power play carried over into the start of the second period. Unlike the previous 20 minutes, the Wolverines wasted no time getting to work. Sophomore forward Matty Beniers was situated on the right circle when he received a sharp pass from sophomore defenseman Owen Power. Beniers fired the one-timer home, extending Michigan’s lead to two.
For the majority of the period, the Nittany Lions were tasked with chasing this deficit. They brought far more aggression and challenged Portillo on numerous occasions. The traffic and chaos in front of Portillo led to a few loose pucks, which he had trouble locating. Eventually, Penn State capitalized.
With nearly three minutes until the second intermission, the Nittany Lions came in the Michigan zone on an odd-man rush. Portillo handled the initial drive, but the uncontested puck was tucked into the twine. Suddenly, the Nittany Lions were only a tally away from a tie and, even more importantly, had the audience behind them.
Once again, though, the Wolverines quickly answered.
Almost identically to his assist on Beniers’s goal, Power slid a feed across the ice to junior forward Johnny Beecher. History repeated itself as Beecher connected on the one-timer and pushed the lead back to two.
“You just feed off of it, it’s a lot of energy,” Beecher said. “It’s just cool to play in front of that many people with that much noise. A big thing for us tonight was taking the wind out of their sails. They have a great fan base but I think we’re able to tune it out.
That was not Beecher’s final mention in the box score. Six minutes into the third period, he made a nice play in the defensive zone and started the breakout. Pushing transition, he carried the puck into Penn State’s zone and played a drop pass to senior forward Garrett Van Wyhe, who fired the puck glove-side low for the fourth Wolverine score of the night. Up by three with just under 12 minutes to go, Michigan was in full control.
“We played with the lead and that makes it a lot easier,” Pearson said. “When you have a guy like (Portillo) in net, that gives you a lot of confidence. We get everybody’s best effort.”
And that they were. Beniers tacked on a fifth goal for the Wolverines, another beautiful shot on the power play and another assist for Power, his third of the night.
As the clock was dwindling down, the Nittany Lions brought some extra physicality, mostly out of frustration. Tomorrow, Michigan will go for the sweep and further bolster its already impressive resumé. If they are to do so, they will have to handle an angry, desperate Penn State squad.