EAST LANSING — One of the biggest issues for the Michigan hockey team this season has been a lack of scoring production from its veteran players. The Wolverines have been relying on rookies and unheralded players to score, leaving the offense mired in inconsistency and question marks.
But against Michigan State this weekend, upperclassmen stepped up and delivered Michigan’s best hockey of the year.
The Wolverines won on Friday, 4-3, and tied, 3-3, before losing in a shootout on Saturday. Michigan played a home-and-home — so Friday’s game was at Yost Ice Arena and Saturday’s game was in East Lansing.
The biggest veteran catalyst for the four-out-of-six-point weekend? Senior forward David Wohlberg.
The alternate captain went almost a month without a point, but a switch from wing to center two weeks ago has had a revitalizing effect. He also switched to a line with junior Chris Brown and freshman sensation Alex Guptill on what Michigan coach Red Berenson has called his “power line.”
Before this weekend, Berenson said Michigan fans would see the “real David Wohlberg” against the Spartans, and his hunch was spot on.
Wohlberg scored the first goal of the game for the Wolverines on Friday, wristing a beauty of a shot into the top right shelf to give Michigan (5-6-3 CCHA, 9-8-3 overall) the early lead.
“I think the guys we needed to step up tonight stepped up,” Wohlberg said Friday. “We knew what needed to be done.”
Wohlberg wasn’t the only upperclassman to step up on Friday, though. After junior forward Chris Brown left the box following his team-leading 13th penalty, he bolted up the left side of the ice and gave Michigan a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Brown used his size and lower-body strength to box out a Michigan State defender in front of the net, then slid the puck right between the legs of netminder Will Yanakeff to take a 2-1 lead.
Even junior forward Kevin Lynch, somewhat of a forgotten comrade, got in on the action. Lynch had had just three points entering the weekend but had two on Friday, including a goal that turned out to be the deciding tally.
That power line — whose average height is 6-foot-2 — has not only helped the two veterans, but also the youngster. Guptill scored his team-leading ninth goal on Friday, and that line has sparked the inconsistent Michigan offense.
“You never know what two or three guys are going to play well together,” Berenson said. “From the minute we put them together, there was something going on there. It’s been good.”
Added Wohlberg: “Those two guys that I am playing with are big boys. I think we are just grinding it out down low and that the chemistry is there.”
On Saturday, the power line — and the veterans — did it again, scoring two of Michigan’s three goals. Brown and Wohlberg scored, and Guptill assisted both of their goals.
Di Giuseppe missed Saturday’s game to be in Alberta, Canada, for the Canadian junior national team tryouts, but Michigan was able to replace his usual production with other spots in the lineup.
Wohlberg now has 17 points in 17 career games against Michigan State, and in a tough, physical game, he and Brown stepped up to be two of the biggest factors on the ice.
“It’s huge to get those guys going,” said senior defenseman Greg Pateryn. “They are a big part of this team, and having those guys scoring gives everyone else some momentum to get going.”
But it wasn’t just the offensive veterans that stepped up. Pateryn had perhaps his best game of the year on Saturday night, flying around the ice and single-handedly blocking a couple open-look Spartan goals.
“Pateryn was a rock,” Berenson said. “He is one of the top defensemen in our league. Without (suspended defenseman) Jon Merrill out there, he has really taken over. You can tell he is the anchor of our defense.”
And senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick gave Michigan a chance to win both nights. He made more than 30 saves both nights, and on Saturday, he made at least three one-on-one saves when the defense was caught out of position.
Though the weekend was successful, Michigan was still painfully close to sweeping its biggest rival on Saturday.
Wohlberg put the Wolverines ahead, 3-2, with a little over six minutes to go in the game, closing in on their first weekend sweep since before Halloween.
Then junior forward Lee Moffie attempted a no-look, backward flip of a clear with four minutes left on a penalty kill that was easily intercepted by Spartan forward Lee Reimer, and Hunwick was left out to dry.
“It’s a bad play and a panic play,” Berenson said. “You can’t panic when you are under pressure. Good players take their time and do the right thing.”
But it looked like Michigan was going to get a great chance to win the game with less than a minute left in the game, when Michigan State forward Anthony Hayes was called for interference.
But the potential man-up opportunity was thwarted when Brown was called for cross-checking during the delayed Hayes call.
“I can’t tell you if it was a good call or not, but that penalty really got them back in the game,” Berenson said.
In overtime, Michigan outshot the Spartans 8-0 and had a few good looks, but couldn’t capitalize.
The Wolverines continued their shootout slump by missing on all three attempts. They are now an abysmal 1-for-9 on the season in shootout attempts.
“The shootout can come down to anybody scoring, and it’s too bad it comes down to that,” Berenson said. “It was a good effort by our team and a good game, but not a good finish.”
But Michigan never would have been in position to win without its horses. Michigan needed the veterans to step up in one of the most important series of the year, and they responded, right on time.