MARQUETTE — Moments after Louie Caporusso’s empty-netter clinched a 5-3 Michigan victory, and ended a furious last-minute Northern Michigan comeback attempt Saturday, one of the Wolverines still had his head hung low.
Goalie Bryan Hogan looked dejected after the win as the teams lined up for post-game handshakes, and caught the attention of sophomores Scooter Vaughan, Tristin Llewellyn and Aaron Palushaj. All three took turns congratulating the netminder, who made 23 saves, including on a point-blank shot in the second period, when Hogan spun around on his knees and used his blocker to close off a shot that snuck underneath him.
“Hogan played phenomenal,” Palushaj said. “(In) the first two periods, he’s the reason why we’re still in the game. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play a game that well.”
But while Hogan’s play was key for Michigan in avoiding a conference-opening sweep, it was Palushaj who broke the game open. Less than two minutes into the second frame, Palushaj raced with the puck behind the net before setting up sophomore forward Matt Rust for the first goal of the night. Then, with nine minutes remaining in the third, Palushaj sent a wrist shot past the diving Wildcat goalie Brian Stewart for a 4-1 lead. He finished with one goal and three assists on the game.
And each of the Wolverines’ first four goals followed the same script: one skater controlled the puck behind the net before finding a teammate in blue charging toward Stewart. That Wolverine offensive aggression was mostly absent in Friday night’s 2-0 loss.
The Wolverines managed to score Saturday because the players did “a better job of getting screens and getting body position in front of the net,” Rust said.
Senior goaltender Billy Sauer arguably had a better game Friday than Hogan did on Saturday, stopping 19 of 20 shots. But despite Sauer’s encouraging numbers, Michigan’s offense couldn’t take advantage.
Nursing a one-goal lead in the third period Friday, Northern Michigan’s team defense had little margin for error, and played sharp defense accordingly. The Wildcats blocked 12 Wolverine shots in the final frame, and 20 total for the game. Michigan couldn’t register a single shot on goal in four third-period power play chances. The Wolverines ended the weekend 0-14 with the extra man.
“We might have played a little too much individually when we were trying to get more of a team effort,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said Friday. “I think the individual efforts were there, but we weren’t moving the puck well enough. I can’t point anybody out and say they had a great game.”
Rust held himself and his linemates, Palushaj and sophomore forward Carl Hagelin, accountable Friday night, saying their offensive impact was minimal and Northern Michigan’s defense made Stewart’s job in net a little too easy.
“We’ve got to get more shots through,” Rust said Friday. “(Stewart) did nothing special.”
Rust said he and his teammates needed a scrappier game on Saturday.
The first line’s renewed aggression in the second game paid dividends. Thanks to relentless pressure on Stewart in front of the net, Rust, Palushaj and Hagelin combined for a 3-7-10 line in Saturday’s win.
Stewart needed to make just four saves in Friday’s final frame en route to Northern Michigan’s 2-0 victory. His 15 stops total on Friday were a reflection of his defense’s performance. Michigan struggled mightily to find openings in the shooting lanes all night.
That the Wolverines routinely found cracks in Northern Michigan’s team defense less than 24 hours later proved Rust’s and Palushaj’s point on the importance of crashing the net.