COLUMBUS — Alex Guptill was late.
The sophomore forward was the last to arrive to the Michigan hockey team’s locker room in Value City Arena after he was pulled aside for an interview following a 6-3 win on Saturday. But he sprinted through the hall in his skates, past his coach and to his teammates, where he tossed his helmet aside before the tradition of singing ‘The Victors.’
In the Wolverines’ sweep of Ohio State over the weekend, Guptill’s offensive production also arrived late.
The sophomore duo — Guptill and forward Phil Di Giuseppe — combined for five goals and two assists over the weekend, helping Michigan to just its second sweep and fourth road win of the season.
Di Giuseppe led the team Saturday night with two goals, but it was Guptill, who slipped the puck between a defenseman’s legs and back out before flipping a backhand in the net, who shined. Guptill also had two goals on Friday, including the go-ahead goal in the third period.
But their offensive production has been inconsistent this season, and lacking when needed.
“We’re two guys who did well in our freshmen year and have kind of been struggling,” Guptill said. “It’s time that us kind of players step up. I think that was a good series for both of us. It’s a big positive and good step in the right direction.”
As freshmen last year, Guptill and Di Giuseppe were a force to be reckoned with in the CCHA, and offensive leaders on their team. As consistent scorers last season, Guptill finished with 16 goals, tied for the team lead, while Di Giuseppe finished fourth with 11 goals.
At this time last year, Guptill had 15 goals and Di Giuseppe had nine. Presently, Guptill has tallied 11 goals and Di Giuseppe has tallied eight.
Instead of posting up near the net and deflecting shots, Guptill has adjusted his game to take matters into his own hands.
“Good things happen when you put it at the net,” Guptill said.
Di Giuseppe, while closer to his freshman campaign than his teammate, has shifted his offensive game from scoring to passing. The Maple, Ont. native has benefitted from being on the same line with freshman forward Boo Nieves and senior forward Kevin Lynch this season, as he matched last season’s total of 15 assists on Friday.
But more importantly than their individual performances was the team’s offensive production that benefited from the catalysts over the weekend.
Guptill’s first goal Friday night didn’t lead to a barrage of goals, but was key in shifting the team’s momentum when no team stood above the other. On Saturday night, Guptill used his beautiful dangle to spark a three-goal third period and secure a sweep.
“Tonight we were working hard and we got rewarded,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “They weren’t necessarily good scoring chances, but we got lucky.”
Di Giuseppe’s hard work was on display frequently, carrying the puck up the ice and unselfishly dishing it to a linemate. His unselfishness, combined with Guptill’s persistence at the net will be important if the Wolverines plan to sweep Ferris State this weekend.
Even the tandem’s defensive production was equally as crucial as the return of its offensive production.
Guptill and Di Giuseppe represented a small portion of the forwards’ strong forecheck, which limited the time of possession in their own zone. Their presence in the Ohio State zone created more scoring opportunities, forcing their rival to make a clearance to eliminate the pressure.
“We worked really hard on our forecheck in the last few weeks,” Guptill said. “Our forwards are still going hard at it, and once the puck gets running around, that’s kind of what our forecheck was built for.”
But ultimately their offensive and defensive production is better late than not at all. In a matter of two games, the Wolverines’ confidence shifted dramatically when it saw Guptill and Di Giuseppe make plays on offense, or work to keep a puck from crossing the blue line. On the Buckeyes’ senior night, it was important to have catalysts, and they’ll be just as important next weekend if they plan to send their senior teammates off with a different result than Ohio State.
“You can get a sweep this weekend, and we haven’t had many of those, so we were excited about that,” Di Giuseppe said. “We knew that it was going to be (Ohio State’s) senior night. Last year was very emotional for our seniors, so we knew how much it meant to them, and we didn’t want them to have their way with it.”