While Michigan football was being drubbed by Penn State on Saturday night, a different group of Wolverines, Michigan Hockey, had a much better weekend. In their home opening series against Vermont on Friday and Saturday, Michigan swept the Catamounts by scores of 4-1 and 3-2. The two wins improved Michigan’s record to 3-1 on the young season. It was also notable for being the first two home games of new Wolverines head coach Mel Pearson’s career and the first two games on the newly dedicated Red Berenson Rink at Yost Ice Arena. I happened to be at both games on Friday and Saturday and this blog serves as a recap of the weekend and some general thoughts about two strong victories.
Michigan absolutely dominated Vermont on Friday, winning 4-1 against the Catamounts, while outshooting their opponent 45-16. The goals came twice in the second and twice in third, the first two from Will Lockwood and Brendan Warren, while the pair of third period scores were from talented freshman Josh Norris. Vermont did manage to break the shutout late in the third on a power play goal from Ross Colton.
In the second, Lockwood got a takeaway near center ice and was off to the races, using speed to create a breakaway before feeding the puck in the five hole past star Vermont netminder Lekkas. Then with under 1 minute to play in the period, Brendan Warren possessed the puck behind the Catamount net, dangled out in front and fired it past goalie Stefanos Lekkas for a goal.
There was little push for Vermont as Michigan continued their dominance in the third. The freshman-freshman connection of Quinn Hughes and Josh Norris struck twice in the 3rd period. First a pass found Norris all alone to skate in and bury a goal, making it 3-0. Not long after, a Hughes shot at the net was tipped in by Norris to put the game out of reach at 4-0. At that point, the Catamounts were just playing for pride and did manage to score the only goal Jack LaFontaine would allow, coming with just over 9 minutes to go in the contest.
As a whole, the game was complete and utter dominance from Michigan. They were sharp in every facet of the game, possessing the puck consistently and keeping most play occurred either in the neutral zone or in Vermont’s offensive zone. They got turnovers, had the defense involved, and overall got some very crisp passing. It was an effort that was almost never seen from last year’s squad and looked a lot more like some of the prime Red Berenson teams that competed for it all.
Not at all the same game as Friday. After such a dominating performance less than 24 hours before, it was likely that Michigan would see some sort of drop off. On the flip side, Vermont was likely to come out angry and motivated. And that was the case. The Catamounts pushed the play early, wearing their dark green away jerseys, and produced a handful of shots and good chances. However, they struck first in a rather unusual manner: on the penalty kill. A sloppy turnover by Michigan created a chance in front, and Max Kaufman put one past Michigan goaltender Hayden Lavigne. Even though Vermont thoroughly won the play in the first period, Michigan was able to escape in a tie game thanks to a wrap-around shot from Adam Winborg, who found the back of the net to make it a 1-1 game. That goal came with just over a minute left in the period.
The story of the second period was very similar. Sloppy and sluggish play for Michigan begat chances for Vermont. Following their theme of special teams goals, the Catamounts took the lead back on the power play at the 7:48 mark of the second frame. Junior Drew Best beat Lavigne on a loose puck in front of the net and Vermont took a 2-1 lead, one that would carry into the end of the period.
At the start of the 3rd, I began to think this blog would look like a breakdown of a win and a loss, the highs and lows of a young team. But Michigan reached into the bag and came out on fire. The third period closely resembled the play of Friday night’s game and was a sign of just how good this young and talented team could be. They outshot Vermont 5-1 in the opening 5 minutes of the period and just kept attacking. And like with Friday night, Lekkas was the savior for Vermont for much of the period. Michigan went on the power play with under seven and a half minutes to go, and despite generating chances, couldn’t put it in. However, it was seconds after the power play ended that a cross ice pass from Quinn Hughes found the one time stick of Jake Slaker who fired a rocket past Lekkas to tie the game with 4:53 to go in the game. Yost Ice Arena erupted but the Wolverines still needed one more to seal the sweep. A couple of good chances would come for Vermont, but a few huge saves by Lavigne kept the game tied. With just over a minute to go in the game, a save by Lekkas froze the puck while Michigan forward Dakota Raabe drove the net. Even though Raabe did not make contact with Lekkas, he was assaulted by a Vermont defenseman in the form of a fist to the face. Raabe retaliated and the two were escorted to the penalty box for matching 2 minute penalties ensuring that the regulation would end in 4 on 4 action. It was just 20 seconds into the 4 on 4 when Jake Slaker got a two-on-one with Quinn Hughes as his other attacker. He used Hughes as his decoy and fired the puck past Lekkas and Yost Ice Arena was sent into frenzy. Michigan would control the puck in the final 53 seconds and the final horn sounded for a 3-2 Michigan win. Shots were an even 30-30 for the game, very different from Friday, but a win all together.
General thoughts from the weekend of hockey:
This was the weekend Michigan needed to have if they want to make the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and be a contender in the Big Ten: sweep a very solid hockey team at home. Vermont is no doormat in college hockey: they went 20-13-5 last year and just missed out on the NCAA tournament. Michigan played Vermont a year ago and lost the game 3-0. It was that kind of season for the Wolverines a year ago: defensive errors made worse by an inability to score. Through four games this season, Michigan is 3-1, having outshot or at least tied in shots in every game this season. That didn’t happen much at all last season. This team is much like Pearson’s teams at Michigan Tech: they possess the puck, control action, and make things happen.
As for other thoughts:
- Michigan isn’t perfect. They still take too many penalties and their penalty killing was meh: forechecking was great but they were too defensive in their own zone, not challenging shots. The Wolverines also need to clean up some turnovers.
- The Friday night game was a showcase of how good these young players can be if they gel and learn as they grow older. There’s no reason that this team can’t be contender in the Big Ten if they play the way they did on Friday consistently the rest of the season
- Looking at the rest of the schedule: Michigan heads out to State College, Pennsylvania to take on the Nittany Lions of Penn State in their first Big Ten games of the season. That will be a tougher test for Michigan. PSU were the Big Ten Tournament champions a year ago and were a preseason Top-10 team. They’ve struggled early on, at just 3-3 on the season but are still a formidable foe on the road. After that, Michigan will return home to host Ferris State in the first weekend of November.