DETROIT — It’d be easy to say Michigan’s odds to win the 50th annual Great Lakes Invitational were rather slim. Missing four of their top players to the World Junior Championship and practically stumbling toward the end of a forgettable non-conference slate, the Wolverines hardly stood a chance.
Michigan’s backs have been against the wall at numerous points throughout the season, but coming into the GLI those backs were super glued and duct taped and stapled to a wall of cold cinderblocks.
Hockey can be a funny game, though, and with some puck luck and a hot goaltender, the Wolverines eked out a 2-1 victory over Michigan State on Sunday to capture their 16th GLI title in program history.
“If you would have asked me two weeks ago, ‘what are our chances in the GLI?’ I would have said our team is really going to have to overachieve, and I told our team that,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson.
It was senior forward Zach Hyman who netted his second game-winning goal of the tournament at the 12:14 mark of the second period. Standing below the left circle, Hyman received a pass from sophomore defenseman Michael Downing and quickly shifted the puck to his backhand where he finished top shelf over goaltender Jake Hildebrand’s right shoulder.
“He made a very skilled play … He stopped it, and I didn’t think he had anywhere to put it, but, you know, he put it back bar,” Hildebrand said. “It was a great shot.”
The highlight-reel goal marked Hyman’s third point of tournament and a team-high 20th of the season.
Michigan first struck twine with junior forward Andrew Copp’s goal at the 9:17 mark of the first period. Sophomore forward Alex Kile dropped a nifty pass off to Copp at the blue line, springing an odd-man rush in which Copp buried his eighth tally of the season.
With just under 16 minutes remaining and the Wolverines up two goals, Michigan State cut its deficit in half when defenseman Rhett Holland fired a shot from the point that found its way past goaltender Steve Racine for his first-career goal.
The Spartans continued to pepper Racine with a flurry of chances in the final period, but the junior netminder stood tall. In just his second start in nearly two months, Racine continued making his case to win the starting goaltending job that Berenson called “up for grabs” after the conclusion of the fall semester.
“(With) Racine, I told you I had my fingers crossed, but I’ve seen him play really well and I’ve seen him play not so well,” Berenson said. “Both of our goalies have been up and down. … I thought Racine really stepped up.”
Racine made 31 total saves on Sunday, but none was more important than his lunging stop to deny forward Joe Cox on a breakaway with less than eight minutes remaining. With 71 saves in two games and just two goals against, he was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
And with Racine’s breakout performance, Berenson didn’t hesitate before confirming he’d start the Wolverines’ next game.
“My confidence is always there,” Racine said. “I won’t say I’m ever not confident, but this just, you know, makes me feel better going into the second half of the year.”
Michigan couldn’t afford to falter this weekend, entering the GLI in search of some marquee victories that could bolster a mediocre resume. In a game that avenged last year’s 3-0 loss to the Spartans in the GLI’s third-place game, the win also capped the Wolverines fifth-straight win against Michigan State at Joe Louis Arena.
“We were just talking about it in the hallway,” Copp said. “How important this was for us and coming back after the layoff and kind of getting out feet wet for the second half to think this is a weekend we can build on.”
Despite little going Michigan’s way through the first half of the season, it fought its way to a GLI Championship for the 14th time under the direction of Berenson and capped off the calendar year in respectable fashion.
“It’s a short weekend, it’s a short tournament, but it’s bragging rights for all four teams,” Berenson said. “You come here and you walk away with that trophy, that’s important. And it’s important for me as well and our staff and everybody that works so hard.”
NOTE: Copp, Hyman, Downing and Racine were all named to the GLI’s All-Tournament team.