In this early portion of the season, the Michigan hockey team has faced little adversity. The Wolverines cruised to victories in their exhibition game last weekend and on Friday night versus Lake Superior State. Saturday night, the story was different. After jumping out to a 2-0 lead, Michigan allowed four straight goals and found itself in unfamiliar territory:
The Lakers did not stumble into that position. They thoroughly out-skated the Wolverines for a majority of the first period and came out of the first intermission firing. The lead was mostly due to an underwhelming defensive showing.
“It seems like, okay, here we go, we’re just gonna play offense,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We’re gonna score goals, we’re gonna get plenty of chances. But, we can’t play high-risk high reward.”
Sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo did not look like his normal self against Lake Superior State. He gave up a plethora of dangerous rebounds, leaving the door open for Laker scoring chances. With 11:20 minutes left in the first period, a shot bounced off of Portillo’s pads and directly onto Laker forward Joshua Wildauer’s tape. He buried the open look past Portillo to tie the game at two.
In fairness to Portillo, his defensemen were not up to their usual stout standards, either. They were not effective enough defending their crease and slot threats. On numerous occasions, opposing forwards entered the defensive zone without much resistance.
Part of this was due to Michigan’s eagerness to generate odd-man rushes. Players such as senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg and freshman defenseman Luke Hughes love to involve themselves in transition. This can lead to great scoring looks, but also tends to leave Portillo out to dry. It’s a bit of a risk, and despite some hiccups, Pearson feels confident.
“They’re hockey players, we wanted to let them play,” Pearson said. “That’s why we recruit guys here to Michigan. I thought Luke Hughes really took a step tonight, he was fantastic.”
Despite a lackluster start and a two-goal deficit, the Wolverines remained poised. Four minutes into the second period, fifth-year forward Michael Pastujov, carried the puck down the left wing. He ripped a shot past the goaltender’s five-hole, cutting the lead to one. It was Pastujov’s second of the night, but more importantly, was the palpable momentum shift after his tally.
“It’s interesting, I thought Pastujov struggled last night, it was his first game in a long time,” Pearson said. “He’s a smart hockey player, and you can see he knows what to do. He’s good around the net, that gave us a little bit of life.”
The crowd at Yost Ice Arena appropriately responded with a thunderous cheer for their alternate captain. The noise level remained high, too, because shortly after Pastujov’s goal, senior forward Jimmy Lambert tied the game on a short-handed opportunity.
Once Michigan went up, there was no looking back. They would tack on another three goals in the third period, comfortably outplaying Lake Superior State.
When battling adversity, it was crucial that Michigan didn’t panic.
“I think it’s just sticking together, sticking to our game plan,” sophomore defenseman Jacob Truscott said. “Staying positive, that’s really important. It’s important everyone’s on the same page.”
The second game of the season will not define the Wolverines, but there are valuable lessons moving forward. For one, this was the first time this roster has faced adversity, and they responded well. On a night where Michigan did not play their best, they were still able to get by the Lakers.
“We’re gonna need everybody this year,” Pearson said. “It was a hard-fought game, we knew we were gonna get that from them. It’s hard to win back-to-back games against anybody in college hockey.”
There will be more nights like tonight. The Wolverines, despite their talent, will not always match their potential with their production. However, a come-from-behind performance against a solid program is always beneficial. Tests like these will prove invaluable during the postseason.
Pearson added: “Good character builder tonight.”