FAIRBANKS — Regulation ended in Saturday night’s game against Alaska Fairbanks and the No. 19 Michigan hockey team had yet to snap its longest winless streak of the new millennium.
The Wolverines battled through three scoreless periods, having to hold their collective breath throughout as the Nanooks (4-8-2-0 CCHA, 7-9-2 overall) fired shot after shot at fifth-year senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick. But the hero, freshman forward Alex Guptill, capitalized on a failed Nanook pass to clinch the game in the early stages of overtime, giving Michigan a 1-0 win.
Michigan coach Red Berenson let out a long sigh of relief that he had been holding in since Nov. 5, when his team last won against Western Michigan.
“It’s about time,” Berenson said. “We had a lot of pressure on us and a little bit of self-doubt. Sooner or later we were going to get out of it, but the sooner part is better.”
With the game winner, Guptill tied fellow freshman forward Phil Di Giuseppe for the team lead with eight goals. But the biggest tally of his young collegiate career came with its fair share of what Berenson calls “puck luck.”
“I didn’t even know it went in,” Guptill said. “I saw everyone else celebrating, so I figured it went in.”
That’s probably because it wasn’t supposed to go in — at least until it was re-directed by a Nanook defenseman. After freshman forward Zach Hyman dumped the puck into the attacking zone, Guptill was there to collect. He weighed his options and fired a shot. Alaska’s Adam Henderson frantically tried to clear it, but a bad bounce sent it off his skate and into the net.
“Obviously, it’s nice to be able to win a game on the road,” Hunwick said. “We had a bad stretch going there. But at the same time, it’s only one win.”
With the losing streak snapped, the long plane ride home seemed far less daunting. And the mood in the locker room mirrored Berenson’s. Hunwick, too, mentioned just how “relieving” the win was.
After all, it was the team’s first true road victory. Sure, the Wolverines picked up a couple points from its shootout win at Northern Michigan, but Michigan (4-6-2-1, 8-8-2) needed to win in Fairbanks if for no other reason than to prove that it could.
And forget the three flights the Wolverines had to take to get it. Berenson would’ve taken three more.
“You’ve got to win on the road,” he said. “This is an important win to take a lot of pressure off (the team).”
With two minutes remaining in regulation, though, the elusive victory appeared in serious jeopardy. Of all the bad spots to take a penalty, freshman defenseman Brennan Serville — coming off a career-best two-point game on Friday — picked the worst.
Perhaps out of desperation, Serville was sent to the penalty box for boarding. The Wolverines would have to close it out a man down.
“I didn’t see the hit,” Berenson said. “But it must’ve been a serious hit or they wouldn’t have called it (so late in the game).”
What followed was likely the strongest penalty kill of the season. It shifted the momentum to Michigan for the overtime period, of which Guptill needed just 57 seconds.
“Our team dug in and they killed it,” Berenson said of the late penalty. “That was a huge kill — one shot and the game’s over.”
Before the game, Berenson told the Wolverines that it could be another one-goal game, but with fewer goals than Friday’s 4-3 Alaska win. In the second period, with the score still knotted at zero, Michigan realized his prediction may be spot on.
“(Nanook goaltender Scott) Greenham’s making huge save after huge save,” Hunwick said. “Halfway through the game, it looked like one goal could do it.”
Knowing that changed nothing for Hunwick. He rose to the occasion, recording his seventh career shutout and first away from Yost Ice Arena.
Hunwick shared Berenson and Guptill’s relief. But he knows the win is simply a small step in the right direction.
“Guys are excited,” Hunwick said. “We didn’t want to go home with zero points. (But) it’s a rivalry week. We’ll turn our attention to Michigan State.”
When asked whether the getaway game could serve as a turning point, Berenson wasn’t ready to make any more bold predictions. But the sigh of relief said it all. With the weight of the world off the team’s shoulders, the Wolverines may again be ready to play “Michigan hockey,” the mistake-free style of play that the team reverted to — at least temporarily — Saturday.