DETROIT – After the stable, successful hockey team seen in January all but disappeared in the last few games, No. 10 Michigan broke a three-game winless skid and shimmied out of its February funk with a satisfactory 3-1 victory over Lake Superior State at Joe Louis Arena yesterday.
The Wolverines were glad to see a few old friends during the game: steady defense, impressive performances from top players and strong special teams.
And the one friend that never really left was as strong as ever: quality goaltending from Billy Sauer.
“A little bit of everything was better,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “Even our power play.”
A familiar story this season, Michigan struggled on the man advantage in a 3-2 loss to the Lakers (10-13-3 CCHA, 16-15-3 overall) in Sault Ste. Marie Friday. The Wolverines came up short during a lengthy 5-on-3 as well as a game-ending power play.
But yesterday, Michigan (17-8-1, 22-11-1) turned up the heat on special teams.
After senior T.J. Hensick opened up the scoring in the first period, classmate Matt Hunwick chipped another in on the Wolverines’ first power play of the game.
Defenseman Jack Johnson started the play in the neutral zone, passing up to sophomore Andrew Cogliano, who sprinted ahead of the Laker penalty killers to connect with Hunwick in the left slot.
“When Cogliano goes wide with the puck with that kind of speed, and Hunwick uses his speed, there’s nobody that’s going to catch them,” Berenson said. “I wish we’d do that more.”
Hensick took over the scoring reigns soon after, notching a highlight-reel 4-on-4 goal.
The alternate captain split the defenders, patiently played the puck until Laker goaltender Jeff Jakaitis went down and then slipped it past Jakaitis’s left skate for a resounding 3-0 Michigan lead.
Sandwiched between the two goals was a stifling Wolverine penalty kill. Lake Superior State didn’t get a single shot off during its power play, the best chance getting blocked by senior Tim Cook.
The lone Laker tally came in the third period when Dan Eves whipped a wrister over Sauer’s blocker. Sauer made 35 saves for the game.
On the other end of the ice, Jakaitis – who leads the country with a .937 save percentage – stopped 23 shots. The All-American netminder bested the Wolverines Friday night with sharp saves and smart positioning.
But Hensick found the cure for Jakaitis yesterday on Michigan’s second shot of the afternoon. The Hobey Baker Award candidate flicked the puck straight in the air in front of Jakaitis and swatted it in. The goal was reviewed for a high stick, but stood as called.
“Their defenseman, he didn’t tie me up,” Hensick said. “He just let me stand there. I found the puck, and with my hand-eye coordination I should be able to do that.”
Hensick and his teammates now stand second in the CCHA, one point ahead of No. 11 Miami (Ohio) and four points ahead of No. 6 Michigan State. Notre Dame clinched the regular-season title Friday night.
The key to locking up the runner-up position and getting a chance in the NCAA Tournament will be returning to the steady success that kicked off 2007.
“I know this team is capable of playing with the best,” Hensick said. “Other times, we’re bad. . If we can consistently play down the stretch here, we’ll have the chance to do some damage.”