There was only one storyline on everyone’s minds going into the Michigan hockey team’s contest with Michigan State on Friday night — what would a game between the CCHA’s two worst teams look like?
It looked like a game that finally fell in the Wolverines’ favor. After getting off to a shaky start, Michigan pulled out a 3-2 win over the Spartans.
Still, Michigan coach Red Berenson isn’t wholly convinced the team is back on track.
“We’ve had a lot of things to fix in our team and I don’t know that they’re fixed with one game,” Berenson said. “I think they feel better as players about their individual work ethic and our collective work ethic for an entire 60 minutes, not just for part of a period or half of a game.”
Freshman goaltender Jared Rutledge made his first start since Nov. 30. The last time he started against the Spartans, Rutledge let in seven goals. And from the way the first period started, it appeared that Friday’s game might take a similar turn.
It didn’t take long for the Spartans (5-13-1 CCHA, 7-17-3 overall) to get on the board. Sophomore defenseman Brennan Serville turned the puck over and Michigan State’s Brent Darnell found the top shelf over Rutledge just five minutes into the opening period.
The Wolverines (6-13-2, 9-16-2) did their best to generate a few offensive opportunities, including a point-blank shot from freshman forward Boo Nieves. But even with a scrum of players around the net, some quick scrambles by Spartan netminder Jake Hildebrand hindered Michigan’s chances to score.
Both teams appeared lackadaisical, but the Wolverines seemed especially lethargic, with everything from their skating to passing appearing slower than usual.
But they came out after the first intermission as a new team.
“I think guys stepped up in the locker room and said ‘This is the time where usually we tend to fall apart,’ “ Nieves said. “I think we realized that time’s over and we came out … and went on from there.”
Michigan started the second period on the penalty kill from a Nieves penalty, but killed it off without giving Michigan State any prime scoring chances.
The Wolverines couldn’t find any offensive firepower during their first power play from the first stanza. But when they went on the man advantage again during the second, Michigan finally seemed to have found its rhythm.
After a full two minutes of heavy pressure on Hildebrand, junior forward Derek DeBlois found twine on a one timer from Nieves just as Michigan’s power play expired.
To say that most of the second frame belonged to the Wolverines would be an understatement — the Spartans didn’t register any more shots on goal until well over halfway through the period and hardly ever found their way down by Rutledge. That was mostly credit to Michigan’s play in the neutral zone, which had very few turnovers.
Nieves’ goal from the slot appeared to give the Wolverines — who finally seemed fully awake — more momentum in the opening minutes of the final period. Seconds later, Michigan State’s Jake Chelios knotted the game up again.
But Nieves’ tear was far from over. The freshman — who’d had a hand in every Michigan goal by that point — scored a second time after a feed from sophomore forward Phil Di Giuseppe, giving him his first three-point game in his Michigan career.
“(Nieves) has been one of our most dangerous players nearly every game, especially in the second half,” Berenson said. “He had a strong game and when you score a goal, you get a lot more confidence from it. He just got better as the game went on.”
With the win, Michigan successful avoided last place in the conference. When the final whistle blew, Yost Ice Arena erupted into the loudest cheers it has heard all season — a sound that’s been something of a rare occurance.
“I haven’t heard the building like that in a while and that’s how it is when you lose,” Di Giuseppe said. “When you win, especially against State the crowd was behind us and that helped us a lot.”