MINNEAPOLIS — When the Big Ten Championship game started, the No. 4 Michigan hockey team appeared set to face two different foes.
The first being its on-ice opponent, No. 2 Minnesota. The second being the raucous crowd at 3M Arena. Right before the opening puck drop, the building appeared to be at an all-time loud, eager for the heavyweight conference title to commence.
Then, it got even louder.
Forward Jaxon Nelson opened the scoring just 32 seconds into the game, sending the fans into a frenzy and the Wolverines into a hole. It was a dream start for the Golden Gophers, who looked to hoist the Big Ten trophy in front of a record-setting crowd of 10,774.
Michigan’s nerves were evident early on. Sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo looked shaky in-between the pipes and even shakier handling the puck. The skaters looked disheveled and unprepared. Simply put, the Wolverines looked shellshocked and the confidence upon which they are so dependent had disappeared.
Then, Brendan Brisson answered.
A mere 45 seconds after Nelson’s tally, the sophomore forward found himself situated in the low slot and received a feed from his linemate, sophomore forward Matty Beniers. Brisson fired home his 19th goal of the season, good for a tie with Beniers atop the team.
The goal not only leveled the score but reassured the Wolverines that this game had only just begun.
“That was probably the biggest part of the game in my opinion,” freshman forward Dylan Duke said. “We get scored on the first shift and I just remember thinking on the bench, when Beniers, Kent (Johnson) and Brisson went out, I was thinking, that’d be huge if they scored right here.
“It’s a turning point and momentum’s going our way.”
Without Brisson’s goal, Minnesota would’ve had more opportunities to feed off its crowd and extend its early lead. The Golden Gophers were able to capitalize on a less-than-ready Michigan squad — one that’s filled with underclassmen who have never experienced an arena rocking like 3M was Saturday night.
Yet, aside from that first shift, the Wolverines showed few signs of a group that an opposing team — or crowd — could rattle. For the next 55 minutes, Michigan controlled the puck, tempo and energy of the game.
“We talked about getting through the first five minutes, trying to take the crowd out of it,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “But the team’s been resilient all year, found a way to come back.”
While Pearson didn’t receive the immediate impact that he’d hoped for, Brisson made sure that the Wolverines still came to play.
“That goal was so big,” Pearson added. “Just come back right after they got the crowd into it. That was huge.”
Moving forward, players like Brisson will be crucial for Michigan’s NCAA Tournament hopes. Not only is he one of the top scorers in the nation, but he provides the Wolverines with a calmness that can get them out of tough situations. Few teams have handled Minnesota or 3M Arena as well as Michigan did. In fact, the Golden Gophers hadn’t suffered a home loss since late January, which happens to be the last time the Wolverines were in town.
Despite the odds, Michigan continues to play its brand of hockey. Amidst all the outside noise this season, the Wolverines have performed time and time again in the biggest moments.
And Saturday night proved to be no different.
“I think we believe in ourselves no matter what,” Duke said. “If things aren’t going our way, we’ll calm it down on the bench and get back to our game. We always believe in ourselves and we don’t get away from that. We’re always gonna have faith in our team and our teammates.”
As Michigan moves farther into the postseason, it will grow even more familiar with foreign environments away from Yost Ice Arena. But if Saturday is any indication, the Wolverines are well-equipped to handle them.