|The high-powered Michigan offense put 49 shots on net against the B1G's top-ranked Michigan State defense. Producing three goals in transition, the Wolverines topped the Spartans, 4-1 in the conference semifinal game. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Detroit Red Wings)
Michigan’s high-powered offense used its transition-game to defeat Michigan State’s stiff defense, overwhelming the Spartans with 49 shots on goal in a 4-1 victory to advance to the B1G championship game.
The game opened like many of the previous five meetings this season, beginning as a fast-paced, physical contest with few whistles and plenty of finished checks.
When MSU forward Matt Berry was called for tripping at the 11:43 mark of the first period, the tempo slowed a bit as UM’s power play went to work for the first time and sustained pressure in the Spartans’ zone.
With less than a minute remaining on the man advantage, UM defenseman Michael Downing walked the puck across the blue line and found a shooting lane. Sending a wrist shot towards the net, Downing’s shot deflected off of Spartans defenseman John Draeger’s shin and into the net behind goalie Jake Hildebrand for an early 1-0 lead.
“We told our team as much as the first goal was going to be important, it’s not the whole game,” UM coach Red Berenson said. “We have to understand that, whether we score the first goal or not, it’s not the whole game. We’ve got a whole game to play and so we tried to belittle that but we know if they get a good lead, they’re a tough team to score on. Tonight, fortunately, we got the lead and then we got it back again and then we built on it, so good for us.”
The Spartans would produce a power-play goal of their own when Berry cashed in on a Travis Lynch elbowing penalty at the 7:03 mark of the second period.
But that momentum would not last long, as the Wolverines increased the tempo, responding with a goal just three minutes later.
Producing 38 shots through two periods of play, UM kept the pressure on MSU and the Spartans couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. So when Mackenzie MacEachern over-skated a loose puck at the UM blue line, a minor mishap proved to be costly as Alex Kile quickly transitioned into a 2-on-1 opportunity for the Wolverines.
Kile skated up the left wing and upon crossing the MSU blue line, delayed just enough for J.T. Compher to join the rush. Kile dished to Compher in the middle of the ice, where Compher then used the lone MSU defender as a screen and fired a wrist shot past Hildebrand’s glove-side to reclaim the Wolverines’ lead.
“That goal was huge,” Kile said. “We always talk about if we get scored on, the next shift has to be a great shift and the puck squirted out and we were just opportunistic, I guess, but that was a huge goal. We needed that.”
The Wolverines would strike again in transition, this time in the third period as Tyler Motte and Dexter Dancs led the charge. Hildebrand made the save on UM’s initial threat, but Motte corralled the rebound behind the net and sent it back in front of the net where Cristoval Nieves collected the puck. With Hildebrand in the seated position on the ice and scrambling from the previous series, Nieves capitalized, sending a quick shot past the out-of-position goaltender, extending the UM lead to 3-1 with less than 10 minutes to play in regulation.
“We’re definitely a really strong team transition-wise,” Nieves said. “I think we capitalized on all our opportunities, whether it be from our own zone or from the neutral zone. I definitely think we got the best of them in our transition-game.”
Kile would add a goal of his own four minutes later when Nieves fired a pass across the neutral zone that sprung him on the attack. Kile carried the puck into the zone and cut across the slot left to right with a defender in front of him. Dragging the puck from his backhand to forehand, Kile sent a wrist shot past Hildebrand, concluding the scoring for a 4-1 final in favor of the Wolverines.
Using their speed in transition, the Wolverines were able to find a weakness in MSU’s strong defense. Producing nine goals in two tournament games, UM will need that offensive momentum heading into a B1G championship match-up that features the top two scoring teams in the conference. The regular-season series is even at two games apiece with the home team winning each game. Now at a neutral site with an NCAA tournament bid at stake, The Wolverines and Gophers could generate some serious offensive firepower as they have combined for seven-or-more goals in three of the previous four meetings.
“They came to us and we got two wins on them and then we went there and they got two wins on us,” Nieves said. “It’s a bitter feeling playing a team that you lost to the last time you saw them, but we got them on NHL ice and we’ve got momentum in our favor now. I think we’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”