Michigan freshman forward Brandon Kaleniecki has made a name for himself this year by finding the right spots in front of the net.
But when Kaleniecki went down with five minutes remaining in the second period with what would later be diagnosed as a high-ankle sprain, Dwight Helminen stepped up and took his spot in the crease, propelling the Wolverines to a 3-1 win.
Early in the third period, with Michigan clinging to a one-goal lead, the sophomore slid in front of Northern Michigan goalie Craig Kowalski and set up for a rebound.
The shot by forward Eric Nystrom didn’t go on net, though. Instead, the puck flew off the back boards, turning everyone around, including Kowalski. Helminen held his ground, and when the puck caromed off the top of the goal and in front of Kowalski, he was in perfect, Kaleniecki-like position.
“You’ve got to expect anything,” Helminen said after the game. “It got a nice bounce off the glass, hit right on the tape, and there wasn’t much left to do but put it in.”
Michigan also won the much-anticipated showdown on special teams. The Wildcats came in boasting the CCHA’s most efficient powerplay. But they could hardly gather an offensive possession against the nation’s best penalty kill. The Wolverines fought off all four of Northern Michigan’s advantages, allowing just four total shots on net.
“I think a big part of that was just keeping them on the move, keeping them off balance,” Helminen said. “As soon as they bobble it once, you’ve got to be on them.”
Nystrom also scored a goal in the game — a quick wristshot early in the first period off a faceoff. Senior John Shouneyia pushed the puck back on the draw to Nystrom, who was lined up near the blueline for the open look.
“He won it so clean, it was just a one-timer,” Nystrom said. “There was a lot of traffic, the goalie went down, and it kind of just snuck over his shoulder.”
Nystrom had been playing well for the Wolverines since returning from the World Junior Championships over a month ago. But recently, he hadn’t been tallying the type of big-time goals that many people might expect from the 10th overall pick in last year’s NHL Entry Draft.
Nystrom’s ninth tally of the season gave Michigan an early edge in a tight, defensive battle. The Wolverines would never give up the lead.
“It’s not that he hasn’t been scoring, but this was a timely goal,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “This was a huge goal.”
With the win, Michigan held its ground in the race for first place in the conference. Ferris State won a laugher against last-place Lake Superior State, 7-1. Ohio State pulled out a 3-2 victory at home against Western Michigan to hold onto a one-point edge over the Wolverines for second place.