With less than 1:30 left in a game that Michigan desperately needed, the Wolverines had a two-goal lead. Having just killed almost two minutes of 5-on-3 play, Michigan looked to have the series split in hand.
Northern Michigan had a man advantage and was firing away in desperation when sophomore defenseman Jason Dest dove head first across the ice, hoping to be hit in the facemask or chest by a half-pound puck flying at the net faster than 60 miles per hour.
Ever since I was a young hockey fan watching the Washington Capitals play at USAir Arena, I have always thought that blocking shots is what makes hockey players special. Even when the game is all but over, hockey players selflessly throw their bodies in front of flying rubber, and many have the scars or fake teeth to prove it. It shows how dedicated the players are to stopping pucks from even getting to their goalie.
“It’s all mentality,” senior captain Eric Nystrom said after practice last week. “If you want to block a shot, it’s going to hit you. And I don’t think we’ve had that kind of attitude.”
Coming into this weekend, the Michigan hockey team had lost just two games in the CCHA — at Ferris State and at Ohio State. But the team had struggled against good programs — winning only one of five games against a ranked team — and it hadn’t really been tested. And frankly, while the Wolverines’ conference record (16-2-0) was certainly impressive, their play hadn’t been. There are plenty of examples, but a few, in particular, come to mind.
They didn’t look impressive in the first game of the year against Northeastern — a game in which Michigan was whistled for nine penalties and gave up two power play goals in the first period on its way to a 4-2 season-opening loss.
Though their offense looked powerful, the Wolverines didn’t look particularly impressive in a 5-4 victory over Michigan State at Yost in November. Michigan gave up a goal 30 seconds into the game and allowed the Spartans to score two others in the first period.
And they certainly didn’t look impressive in a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Minnesota the following weekend. On the Golden Gophers’ Olympic-sized ice, the Wolverines got out-hustled and outplayed for the full 60 minutes.
On Saturday, for the first time this season, I was extremely impressed with the way the Wolverines played. They hustled. They dove. They blocked shots. They wanted to win — maybe because they needed to win.
And nothing epitomized Michigan’s effort better than the last six minutes of the game. Fourteen minutes into the third period, Michigan was clinging to a 3-1 lead when they were whistled for two penalties within 20 seconds of each other. Having to kill off almost two minutes down two skaters with just a two-goal lead, the Wolverines from earlier in the year probably would have put in the effort to win the game but may not have made the same sacrifices.
Forty-five seconds into the penalty kill, alternate captain Brandon Rogers slid across the ice to block a shot. When the puck was then kicked out to the point, Montoya went all out with a great glove save. After the faceoff, senior Jason Ryznar got down on a knee to block another slap shot from the point. Ryznar hurt his hand on the blocked shot but was able to clear the puck before skating to the bench. Ryznar’s effort showed exactly how much the Wolverines wanted this game. The senior came back for the last minute of play before being taken to the hospital for X-rays on his hand immediately following the game.
“Tonight, we played with more desperation,” Michigan coach Red Berenson admitted after Michigan pulled out the victory. “There was more urgency and second efforts all through the game.”
Blocking shots is something that Michigan has been working on all season. Berenson has emphasized the fact that blocking shots can change the game, and the coaching staff has used pucks in practice to make sure players are unafraid of getting in front of that half-pound of rubber flying at freeway speed. In previous seasons, they have used tennis balls instead of pucks to simulate shot-blocking. The new practice style paid off late on Saturday, when the players saved the game by sacrificing their bodies.
Earlier this week, Nystrom talked about needing a wakeup call. He said that he didn’t know when it would come but knew that it had to come. No one was sure if last week’s loss to Ohio State would be that wakeup call or not. But after Friday’s loss to the Wildcats, one thing was sure: it wasn’t. Even so, Saturday’s Wolverines sure looked like a new team.
So who knows? Maybe they’ve finally woken up.
Ian Herbert can be reached at email@example.com.