By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 1, 2013
It didn’t look like the 2013 Michigan hockey team on the ice at Yost Ice Arena Friday night.
This wasn’t the team that had secured a losing season and ranked near the bottom in the nation in goals against.
But the team wearing maize and blue skated to the puck faster, blocked and cleared shots and made saves in front of the net when it was supposed to. It played aggressively while holding its ground down a man.
Playing arguably one of their best games of the year, the Wolverines were indeed the team on the ice, but they finally looked like the team many expected them to be at the beginning of the year. In its penultimate regular-season CCHA game, Michigan defeated Ferris State, 4-1, to set up a must-win finale.
Junior forward Derek DeBlois had a goal and an assist while sophomore forward Alex Guptill added two assists to give the Wolverines their fifth win in seven games and sixth game with at least four goals. Michigan sits at eighth place in the conference after the win, giving it a chance to host a first-round conference playoff game.
“We’ve obviously had our struggles, but we’re playing our best hockey right now,” DeBlois said. “I think we’re just working harder defensively and offensively.
“When you play hard defensively, the offense just kind of comes and you get bounces when you’re working hard.”
The Wolverines (10-15-2-2 CCHA, 13-18-2 overall) didn’t waste any time getting on the board and set the tone for the game when they scored less than three minutes in. Sophomore forward Travis Lynch’s shot near the right circle bounced off Bulldog goaltender CJ Motte, but was hit in by fellow sophomore forward Zach Hyman for just his fourth goal of the year.
Minutes later at the 13:02 mark, the Wolverines reverted to their old selves, giving up a turnover near the blue line. But freshman netminder Steve Racine stepped up as Ferris State (13-12-2, 14-14-4) charged at him, snapping his glove to end any threat.
The team solidified its lead three minutes later. Sophomore forward Alex Guptill skated around the net to the goal line and sailed a pass to Andrew Copp. The freshman forward’s shot bounced off Motte’s pad, but DeBlois was there to hit it in.
“We talked about this all year: just finding a number one goalie,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “Right now, Racine is that guy and he’s got three pretty good games under his belt. I think our team has more confidence in him and that’s going to help them have more confidence in themselves.”
But the momentum was briefly halted when the Bulldogs’ 12th-ranked power play capitalized with 3:57 left in the period after senior defenseman Lee Moffie checked a Ferris State forward down in the crease, ultimately knocking over Racine. With Racine on the ground, the Bulldogs cycled the puck around the net until forward Travis Ouellete scored.
Michigan’s quick pace continued in the second period, but it took almost 15 minutes to score. They didn’t appear concerned, though, as their goaltender continued to shine.
Racine held steady in the net, falling on his back to make saves and benefiting from the Bulldogs’ failure to get shots on goal. In his third consecutive start of the season, Racine made 22 saves on 23 shots in one of his best starts.
“You saw him today, he played awesome,” DeBlois said. “Any time we needed a save he stepped right up. I thought that was his best game, and he’s got to have a lot of confidence right now because he’s been great for us.”
Despite missing chances on a power-play attempt, the Wolverines confidence never wavered and they scored a goal just 17 seconds after the penalty expired. Finding himself in a 2-on-1 advantage, sophomore forward Phil Di Giuseppe crossed the puck to junior forward Luke Moffatt, who plowed the puck into the net.
Escaping with a two-goal lead into the third period, Michigan rode its momentum through the final stanza to close out the game.
Moffie scored his third goal of the season and effectively ended any hope of a comeback for Ferris State with his goal from the blue line with 7:47 left in the game.
But the game was already decided by then, thanks in part to the defensive corps that cleared pucks late in the game and benefited from the forwards that held the puck in the opposing zone.
“It’s a combination of everything,” Berenson said of his defense. “I think the defense played strong and our goalie played strong and a couple of our forwards came back and saved sure goals. It’s a good team effort defensively.”
Added Hyman: “I think we’re getting a total effort from everybody. Some games we’d have one line going and three lines would be off, but now we’ve got all four going and that’s huge for us.”
With the win, focus immediately shifted to finishing off the sweep on Saturday.
“Tonight’s game doesn’t really mean anything without tomorrow night’s game. Tomorrow night’s game is huge — it means a lot,” Berenson said. “But I think we have a little bit of control over our own destiny and we’ll take advantage of it.”