With just over six minutes remaining in Saturday night’s game at Yost Ice Arena, the Michigan hockey team found itself in a tough spot.
Despite leading Northern Michigan by a score of 3-1, the No. 4 Wolverines (17-3-0 CCHA, 20-7-1 overall) were at a two-man disadvantage. With both Tim Cook and Matt Hunwick — one-third of the team’s defensive corps — in the penalty box and the Wildcats (11-6-3, 13-8-5) on the attack, it was up to the Wolverines’ recently-porous penalty-killing unit and the goaltending of Al Montoya to keep Michigan on top. If Northern Michigan scored early enough in the one-minute-and-40-second stretch of 5-on-3 play, it would still have a one-man edge for a chance to tie the contest in the waning moments.
But the Wolverines responded with impressive defensive poise that prevented the Wildcats from scoring and whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Montoya made three stops during the span, which was punctuated by the netminder’s sprawling glove save of a Nathan Oystrick shot from the middle of the slot. The acrobatic effort prompted a standing ovation from many fans. Michigan’s skaters also rose to the occasion during the penalty kill by making big hits, blocking shots and clearing the puck to the Wildcats’ end a few times to effectively shut down the Northern Michigan rally.
“It was a big boost,” forward Milan Gajic said of the successful penalty kill. “Once that happened, I think we kind of started rolling, and the game was over.”
Michigan coach Red Berenson was proud of his team’s effort with the game on the line.
“That’s a tough position to put yourself in late in the game,” Berenson said. “It’s not like you’re hanging on, but, if they get another one, who knows? They had us on our heels, and I thought we did a great job.”
Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle was disappointed with the outcome of his team’s late-game chance.
“We’ve got our best players on the ice, and they have to be our best players,” Kyle said. “They have to make plays at that time, and we didn’t make plays.”
After the Michigan’s 4-1 loss to Northern Michigan on Friday — its first conference defeat at home since falling to Michigan State on Feb. 28, 2003 — the Wolverines were anxious for a weekend split to salvage the series. Though Michigan remained in first place in the CCHA, second-place Ohio State swept Western Michigan to inch within three points of the top spot. Another loss on Saturday would have left the Wolverines with a hair-thin one-point margin.
“We’ve had a lot of good games, but this was an important good game,” Berenson said. “We couldn’t afford to take another step backward.
“I thought we played with more of an edge and more of a bite, and (with) more urgency in the game. These games, mentally, are games of desperation and confidence and there’s a balance between the two.”
Michigan’s offense looked strong in the first period, with senior Eric Nystrom and freshman Kevin Porter each notching power play goals. At 4:24 of the opening frame, Nystrom tapped in a pass from junior Andrew Ebbett, who was positioned behind the Northern Michigan net.
“We knew the first goal was going to be important,” Berenson said. “(Northern Michigan) had a lot of confidence coming off last night’s game. If we didn’t bury one, they were always going to be in the game. If they got a lead with one or two, you don’t know if you can come back or not.”
Seven minutes later, Gajic fed Porter with a left-to-right pass through the slot. Porter one-timed the puck past an out-of-position Tuomas Tarkki, beating the goalie to the glove side to give Michigan a 2-0 lead. The goal would eventually stand up as the game-winner.
“We were ready to play,” Gajic said. “We came out and wanted to get them off their whole defensive-oriented structure. With our first two goals, we definitely did that. They had to start opening it up. They had to start taking some chances to get some goals. We wanted to play our game, not theirs.”
Kyle acknowledged that the Wolverines did take his players out of their element.
“Tonight was much more their kind of game,” Kyle said. “Their big gunners played tonight and we had some guys who, in my opinion, could have done a better job.”
The second period was marred by penalties, with neither team managing to score or get into rhythm. But the Wolverines’ defense continued to clamp down on the Wildcats, who were held to just seven shots — compared to Michigan’s 23 — through the first 40 minutes.
Gajic closed the Michigan scoring 2:33 into the third with a slapshot from the right circle. The puck went through Tarkki’s legs to extend the Wolverines’ lead. The goal was Gajic’s 14th of the season, which set a new career-high.
Despite a Northern Michigan goal scored by junior defenseman Jamie Milam that beat a screened Montoya high glove side with eight minutes left, the Wildcats failed to close the gap further. After the failed 5-on-3 power play, Northern Michigan attempted to spark the offense by pulling Tarkki for an extra attacker, but Michigan repelled the Wildcats’ attacks until the horn sounded.