ST. PAUL, Minn. — He had only scored three goals heading into last night’s Frozen Four matchup with No. 1 North Dakota, but that was a statistic that didn’t matter to Michigan forward Ben Winnett.
The senior has played various roles for the Wolverines this season and has seen frequent line changes and penalty-kill duties. But even though Winnett wasn’t having the offensive campaign he wanted, he took it all in stride.
And on Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center, against the nation’s third best defense in the Fighting Sioux, Winnett got his time to shine.
In front of a sellout crowd of 19,139 — the majority of which had been rooting for North Dakota — Winnett scored his fourth goal of the season, his first since December. His lamplighter came 13 minutes into the first period to give No. 2 Michigan the only lead it would need against the Fighting Sioux.
“That’s actually been my nickname throughout the year: the scoring machine, because of the offensive numbers that I’ve been able to put up,” Winnett joked after the game. “(But) to be able to get one tonight, it was just a big burst of energy for the team in terms of starting off that game.”
Winnett, along with linemates senior forward Matt Rust and junior forward Luke Glendening, had the task of matching up with North Dakota’s top line for much of the game. The trio finished with a combined plus-3 rating for the Wolverines on Thursday and kept Fighting Sioux leading scorer and Hobey Baker finalist Matt Frattin to a minus-2 rating.
“Going into the game, our line knew we were going up against a very high-scoring line,” Winnett said. “But we were able to do a pretty good job and frustrate them early, and I think that kind of set the tone for the rest of the game.”
As Michigan coach Red Berenson pointed out in the postgame press conference, Winnett, Rust and Glendening had a combined 16 goals heading into Thursday’s contest. The Fighting Sioux line they faced in Frattin, Evan Trupp and Brad Malone had over 60.
But deep in the NCAA Tournament, numbers aren’t as important as execution. And at a timely moment for Michigan, Winnett’s goal was the much-needed first spark for the Wolverines.
He definitely wasn’t one of the most high-profile seniors heading into this weekend, but Winnett will carry over this confidence boost into Saturday’s National Championship Game.
Shortly after freshman forward Jon Merrill rifled a shot that hit the crossbar of the North Dakota goal, Merrill took a shot from the blue line that Glendening kicked over to Winnett, who had a wide-open right side of the net and banged home the eventual game-winner for the Wolverines.
“I had my head down completely,” Winnett said. “Luke was able to kick it to me free, and I knew approximately where the net was and figured the goalie wouldn’t be there that quickly. I just shot it as hard as I could.
“Obviously getting the first goal against a team like that, they’re not used to playing from behind and after that we were able to frustrate them. Our penalty killing and goaltending was very good, and that kind of angered them and maybe got them away from the game plan they’re used to playing.”
Both his parents flew in from Vancouver to watch the game. Embracing the win-or-be-done mentality of a senior, Winnett picked a good time to step for the Wolverines.
He started the game out strong on the penalty kill, making a few nice clears of the puck out of the Michigan zone after the Wolverines took two early penalties to start the game.
“Personally, I think Ben’s had a very interesting story here,” Rust said. “He’s definitely, in my opinion, one of the most skilled guys on the team. I think he’s been put in a very difficult role in his time at Michigan, and I couldn’t think of a better person to have that goal than Ben.”
Added Berenson: “He’s a senior. I expected more from him in his senior year. But I can tell you he’s playing his best hockey right now, whether he scores or not.”