OMAHA — Not everyone on the Michigan bench knew, but T.J. Hensick did. In fact, his hearing might be as keen as his knack for helping Michigan score late-game goals.
With 12 minutes remaining and Michigan tied 3-3 with Nebraska-Omaha on Saturday, the PA announcer at the Qwest Center read off some CCHA scores. Hensick heard the one that mattered: Ohio State 3, Bowling Green 2. The Buckeyes had taken over the lead in the CCHA by one point.
Six minutes later, Hensick took the puck behind the net and slid it across the goal mouth to David Moss, who was oblivious to the outcome of the Ohio State game. Moss’s one-timer was thwarted by Mavericks goalie Chris Holt. Moss whacked at it again, but Holt made the second save.
It was Moss’s backhanded third try that slid under Holt to give Michigan a 4-3 lead. The single-goal margin stood until the final horn, and Michigan regained its one-point cushion in the CCHA.
“T.J. made a great play in the corner,” Moss said. “The goalie robbed me on the first save, but I just took a couple of whacks at the rebound, and it found its way home.”
Hensick did more than just feed Moss for the game-winning goal. He almost single-handedly brought the Wolverines (19-3-2 CCHA, 22-7-3 overall) back from a 3-1 deficit in the second period.
With five minutes gone in the second period, Michigan goalie Al Montoya caught Nebraska-Omaha (11-10-3, 15-12-3) on a line change. He flipped the puck all the way to the Mavericks’ blue line, where freshman Chad Kolarik was waiting. Kolarik centered the puck to Hensick while the Mavericks, fresh off the bench, were rushing back to their zone. Hensick skated in and beat Holt to close the gap to 3-2.
“He’s a special player,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “When he gets going, it’s hard to stop him.”
Just ask Holt. Hensick struck again halfway through the third period to tie the score at 3-3. Freshman Kevin Porter fed Hensick in the neutral zone and Hensick did the rest. He skated around a Nebraska-Omaha defenseman and his shot, from in close, went off Holt’s glove and into the net.
Michigan is now 14-0-0 when Hensick scores a goal.
“(The win) was huge for us,” Hensick said. “It was a do-or-die situation, especially hearing that Ohio State won. It was crunch time for us, and, luckily, I got some bounces that went my way, and we were able to capitalize.”
On Friday, both Michigan and Ohio State took care of business. Michigan disposed of Nebraska-Omaha 6-4 while Ohio State beat Bowling Green 3-2.
In Michigan’s Friday win, Hensick assisted on the game-winner to Brandon Kaleniecki late in the third period. Just minutes later he clinched the game with the final goal to make the score 6-4.
The Wolverine’s road sweep was its first in nearly two years when they swept a much weaker Mavericks team.
After Ohio State’s game ended on Saturday, Hensick was not the only one who knew that the conference lead was at stake.
“I just have a good ear on the bench,” Hensick said with a smirk. “But I think a lot of guys heard it, which is something that motivated us a little. But we have to be motivated on our own.”
Each team has four games remaining, but Berenson wants Michigan to worry about itself rather than the Buckeyes.
“I haven’t said one word about Ohio State,” Berenson said. “I talk about playing for first place, playing like a first-place team, competing like a first-place team, and then first place will take care of itself. It’s not about what Ohio State does, it’s about what Michigan does.”
After 20 minutes of play on Saturday, Nebraska was ahead 2-0, and it looked as if the Wolverines might be looking up in the standings at night’s end.
Just four minutes into the game, on the Mavericks’ first shot, sophomore defenseman Dan Knapp scored on a wrist shot from just inside the blue line.
In the ninth minute of play, Nebraska-Omaha sophomore Alex Nikiforuk stretched the lead to two when he skated in from the left and deposited the puck to Montoya’s glove side on just the Mavericks’ third shot of the game.
But after sophomore Matt Hunwick scored a goal in the second period, Montoya settled down. In the third period he made a number of spectacular saves, including two post-to-post saves on odd-man rushes. In all, he made eight saves and shutout the Mavericks in the final frame.
“Al made some big saves,” Berenson said. “This was another tough game for Al. Obviously we had our backs up against the wall. Then we started to play better, and then we finally got a goal. It was an important first goal, and then it was a game. And then Al had a chance to be a factor in the game. Up until then he had to hope that we got the goals back.”
Still, even after two wins, Ohio State looms.
“We know they’re right there, one point behind us,” Hensick said. “So any mistake we make, they’re going to capitalize on us. We have to be aware of them, but more importantly, we have to be aware of ourselves.”
Next weekend, Michigan will play a series against Notre Dame. Friday’s game will be in Fort Wayne and Saturday’s will be in Ann Arbor. Ohio State will travel to Michigan State for a weekend pair of games.