As the teams spilled out onto the ice for warmups, Michigan goalie Al Montoya and Michigan State goalie Dominic Vicari settled into identical stretches about five feet from each other on either side of the red line. The former teammates on the U.S. National Junior Team talked a bit as they prepared for the game.
But they had no idea what they were about to encounter. During the first period, Michigan and Michigan State combined for seven goals, as well as innumerable odd-man rushes and point-blank shots that went uncontested by both defenses.
Michigan trailed, 4-3, after the opening 20 minutes, but the defense stiffened and did not allow the 14th-ranked Spartans to score again. When it was all said and done on Saturday night, No. 2 Michigan — on the strength of second-period goals by sophomore T.J. Hensick and senior captain Eric Nystrom — eked out a 5-4 win over its archrival in Yost Ice Arena.
On Thursday, Michigan beat the Spartans 4-2 at Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing. It was the first time the Wolverines swept a weekend series with the Spartans since 1992.
With eight minutes remaining in the second period on Saturday, Nystrom followed his linemates — freshmen Chad Kolarik and senior Jason Ryznar — into the Michigan State zone. Nystrom took a drop pass from Ryznar, who was skating down the left side, and shot it past Vicari for the game-winner.
“Unbelievable,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I think everyone expected a close game and a low-scoring game between these two teams and these two goalies.”
Was it close? Absolutely. Neither team ever led by more than one goal and the lead changed hands four times.
But low-scoring? Not this time.
Michigan State (3-5-0 CCHA, 5-6-1 overall) scored just 30 seconds after the puck was dropped. Freshman forward Jim McKenzie lofted the puck out of the Spartans zone and senior forward Jim Slater beat Michigan sophomore defenseman Matt Hunwick in a race to the puck. Slater skated into the right circle and beat Montoya to his stick side to open the scoring deluge.
With Michigan (7-1-0, 9-2-1) trailing 3-2, in the latter stages of the first period, Hensick gathered the puck deep in his zone. He skated out and sped through the neutral zone untouched. He and Kolarik sped into the Spartans’ zone, but Hensick saw an opening and skated towards the net himself. He deked to the left, in front of Vicari, and slid the puck into the net, tying the game at three. It was Hensick’s first of two goals on the night.
“I thought that (Vicari) was going to poke-check me,” Hensick said. “But he stayed in the butterfly, so that gave me a chance to get around (him).”
Hensick’s end-to-end scoring effort certainly caught the eye of his coach.
“I thought the player of the game was T.J. Hensick, with the way he just took over the game at times,” Berenson said. “And a kid like that, he’s still only 18 years old. And he just took charge of that game.”
Michigan State center Ash Goldie answered Hensick’s goal before the first intermission and the teams went to their respective locker rooms to regroup and get their defenses in order with Michigan State ahead, 4-3.
“It’s amazing how players in any sport get out of sync,” Berenson said. “And we seemed to be out of sync in the first period. (We made) poor decisions with the puck, poor decisions without the puck, and players (were) falling down. If it could (go wrong), it seemed to (go wrong).”
But from that point forward, Montoya and the Michigan defense shut down the Spartans. After the Michigan defense allowed 12 shots in the first period alone, it held the Spartans to the same number of shots in the second and third periods combined.
“Coach kind of came in and chewed (the defense) out after the first period,” Nystrom said. “But sometimes you need that little kick in the butt to get you going. And from that point on, they did a great job just playing simple hockey, and that’s when we’re at our best — just chipping it out (and) chipping it in. We had a relentless forecheck going in the second and third. And that’s the type of hockey we have to play if we want to be successful.”
Hensick’s second goal was almost as sensational as his first. He took a pass from senior defenseman Eric Werner and skated to the net with the puck on his stick once again. This time, Hensick juked right instead of left and beat Vicari for his second goal and third point of the game.
“Their team speed is so tough to defense against all the time,” Michigan State coach Rick Comley said.
Junior forward Brandon Kaleniecki opened the scoring for the Wolverines just two minutes into the game and senior forward Milan Gajic scored a power play goal off a rebound just minutes later to give Michigan a 2-1 advantage.
Michigan State sophomore forward Drew Miller answered with two goals of his own — one of which came on the power play — but Michigan shut him and the rest of the Spartan offense down for the final 40 minutes to secure the weekend sweep.
“(The sweep) was good, and it was hard-earned,” Berenson said. “These two teams are both going to compete for first place (in the CCHA). It may not look like it right now with Michigan State, but they’re a good team and down the road, you’re going to see them bounce back.”