With 10 seconds left on the clock in last Saturday’s CCHA championship game at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, senior Mike Woodford skated to center ice for a faceoff against Ohio State’s Rod Pelley. Michigan was leading 3-2, and the Buckeyes had pulled goalie Dave Caruso for an extra attacker in an attempt to tie the game and send it to overtime. A faceoff loss to Pelley would mean a possible scoring chance for Ohio State, something the Wolverines could not afford to give up.
But Michigan’s center sprung to action.
“The ref dropped it, and I took a whack at it,” Woodford said. “At first, I thought it was going to be icing because I got a lot on it, but then they waved it off.”
Woodford’s blast down the ice found senior Jason Ryznar, who controlled the puck behind the gaping Ohio State net before bringing his stick around and jamming home the nail in the coffin — Michigan’s fourth goal — with just half a second left in the game.
“(Woodford) executed it perfectly,” Ryznar said of his linemate’s pass. “He hit it past both (defensemen) and perfectly down the zone. It was a great play.”
The ensuing celebration was unforgettable for Woodford, who exhibits a healthy dislike for all things Ohio State.
“I’ve never been very fond of that team or that school and the way they play and the way they act out on the ice,” Woodford said. “It was a good feeling for me and my teammates, and there’s nothing like seeing your team celebrate like that after a championship. It was a good end to a good night.”
But part of Woodford’s happiness might have come from the fact that he was on the ice to begin with. Despite playing in most of the Wolverines’ games over his first three years in Ann Arbor, the senior played in just eight of Michigan’s first 22 tilts this season due to the team’s overwhelming depth at forward. With the addition of high-scoring freshmen Chad Kolarik and Kevin Porter, as well as the consistent play of other skaters up front, there simply wasn’t room for Woodford on the line chart.
So when junior forward Andrew Ebbett was benched for a series against Alaska-Fairbanks in mid-January, followed by sophomore forwards Mike Brown and David Rohlfs being sidelined with mononucleosis soon afterward, Woodford saw it as an opportunity to re-establish himself as an everyday player. Since Jan. 14, Woodford has missed a mere two of the Wolverines’ past 18 contests. Even more impressive, Michigan has just one loss when Woodford has played during the span.
“The coaches gave me a chance to get into the lineup,” Woodford said. “I’ve been trying to take advantage of it. You look back at the end of the season and probably say, ‘I wish I played more games.’ But right now, you just take it game by game. I’m a senior, and I’m glad I have the opportunity to be playing. With each game going by, I’m getting more and more confidence. I’m feeling strong, I’m feeling healthy and I’m playing with a pretty good guy, (Ryznar). So it’s been going well.”
Since the playoffs began, the Westford, Mass. native has taken his play to new heights. Woodford scored a season-high two points with a goal and an assist in Michigan’s first postseason game, a 10-1 win over Notre Dame. After which Michigan coach Red Berenson called him one of the Wolverines’ best players on the ice.
“I thought Woodford was doing all the little things,” Berenson said. “He was winning faceoffs in our zone, he was down low helping us defensively and (he was) getting some offensive chances as well. He was making (his) line make a difference in that game. That’s the kind of hockey we want to see all our centermen play.”
Woodford’s productivity doesn’t usually come through scoring, but that’s fine by his coaches and teammates. What’s important to them is that Woodford contributes in the ways he’s most effective.
“He chips in a little bit offensively, but his game can’t be measured by statistics,” senior captain Eric Nystrom said. “He’s a heart-and-soul guy. He plays physical, he penalty-kills, he pays the price and he’s playing some of the best hockey he’s played since he’s been here. He’s just putting it all on the line, and he’s been a huge reason why we’ve been successful in the second half of the season.”
Woodford has also refrained from pressing too much when things haven’t gone his way.
“He’s not trying to play out of his element or out of his game,” senior forward Milan Gajic said. “He’s doing what he has to do to be successful. He’s not getting frustrated.”
Berenson said he has been pleased with Woodford’s play since he was moved into the regular lineup two months ago. The coach, for his part, knows that his center is capable of doing great things for the team.
“(Woodford) is smart with the puck, and he’s a smart two-way player,” Berenson said. “He’s an intense player. Whoever his line is, he’s the glue on that line.”
No surprise, then, that the Wolverines have come together since Woodford stepped into the lineup. The once-benched senior seems to have stuck himself on the ice for good.