Week 5: Sparty Sweep
Michigan sweeps a home-and-home against MSU to boost its record to 8-2-0 on the season
The third-ranked University of Michigan Wolverines men’s ice hockey team swept their in-state rivals this weekend in a home-and-home series that began in Ann Arbor on Friday night before shifting to East Lansing on Saturday evening. The Wolverines controlled both games from the opening minutes and never trailed in either, finishing the series ahead on aggregate by a score of 10-4. The sweep propels Michigan to an 8-2-0 record, with a 3-1 mark in Big Ten play.
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Friday, in front of a standing room only, Maize out crowd in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines put on a show, racing to a 7-2 thrashing of the Spartans.
Both teams announced their intentions for the game in the opening minutes of the first. Michigan intended to score early and often; the Spartans planned to finish their checks. Skilled Wolverine stars like Kent Johnson and Thomas Bordeleau were both knocked from their feet by Spartans in the first, but on aggregate, State’s physicality did little to curb Michigan’s attack.
Birthday boy Matty Beniers got the Wolverines on the scoreboard before the game was four minutes old. The goal came at the tail end of his shift, with the Wolverines recycling possession and Spartans in the midst of a line change. Kent Johnson received an Owen Power headman pass at the Spartan blue line, cut inside, and found Beniers streaking to the net. In alone, Beniers rifled home a wrist shot and gave the Wolverines a lead that would never feel in serious jeopardy for the rest of the night.
In the aftermath of Beniers’ goal, an extended video review culminated in a five-minute major and game misconduct assessed to Garrett Van Whye. This fate felt poetically cruel, given that Van Whye was on the receiving end of a similar hit last Friday night against Wisconsin that did not yield a penalty after video review.
However, even this major penalty wasn’t enough to slow down the Wolverines. For most of State’s five-minute power play, it was Michigan who appeared more dangerous, generating quality opportunities off the rush despite being down a man.
Not long after Van Whye’s major expired, back-to-back Spartan penalties sent Michigan to a two-man advantage with plenty of time to operate. The Wolverines showed a different look on the power play from what we have seen for most of the season. Rather than loading up the top unit with all of its big gunners, Michigan divided its top talent and distributed power play ice time more evenly between the two units.
Thomas Bordeleau, Brendan Brisson, Mackie Samoskevich, Dylan Duke, and Luke Hughes comprised the first, with Johnson, Beniers, Power, Jimmy Lambert, and Mike Pastujov making up the second.
It was the latter unit (I hesitate to identify one as the first and one as the second power play) that struck on the five-on-three. The passing combinations looked familiar. Power to Johnson, with Johnson looking for a cross-ice “royal road” pass for a one-timer. Instead of Brisson awaiting Johnson’s feed though, it was Beniers who did his best impression of the Wolverines’ top goal scorer to double the Michigan lead.
With just seconds remaining in the period, State got itself on the board, a goal that came with the Wolverines’ d-zone coverage scrambling. It was Cole Krygier who took advantage and left the score at 2-1 after one.
The Spartans appeared as though they may sustain that momentum for a decent chunk of the second. In the early stages of that frame, their forecheck hemmed in Michigan and prevented the Wolverines from generating much going the other way.
However, by period’s end, the Wolverines’ skill won out, and they carried a comfortable three-goal advantage into the third.
First, Brendan Brisson, who looked as dangerous as he has all season throughout the game, showed incredible patience and skill in roofing a backhand from a seemingly impossible angle.
Then, a dazzling individual effort from Luke Hughes made it 4-1.
An early third period goal for Sparty suggested that the frame would not just be pro forma, but once again, the Wolverines’ skill triumphed. With another goal from Hughes, then a power play rocket from Samoskevich, before Johnny Beecher put an exclamation point on the night with a goal of his own in his season debut.
Beecher, who despite registering a goal and an assist was mostly quiet on the night, scored off an incredible feed from Johnson. Johnson collected the puck behind the Spartan net and appeared to attempt a “Michigan” before dancing around several Spartan defenders and feeding a wide-open Beecher for a lay up.
As Mel Pearson predicted midweek, it was not the most impactful game of Beecher’s career but seeing it culminate in a goal sealed a near-perfect night of Michigan hockey.
Beecher’s was not the only debut of the game though with Steve Holtz, a sophomore defenseman playing in his first ever game as a Wolverine. Holtz endeared himself to Wolverine fans when he wrestled Griffin Loughran to the ice early in the third, earning ten-minute misconducts for both players, but his impact was visible elsewhere throughout the game.
Holtz rode shotgun with Owen Power on Michigan’s top pair and showed quite a bit of the speed and skill that characterizes the Wolverine blue line. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Holtz receive future opportunities, even once Ryan Blankenburg, whom he was replacing due to injury, returns to the lineup.
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On Saturday night, the Wolverines sealed their sweep over the Spartans on the strength of a three-goal first period.
Once again, Michigan took command of the game in short order. This time, that goal came from an innocuous-looking Owen Power wrist shot, which Luke Morgan tipped past Drew DeRidder.
The Wolverines would add to that lead about ten minutes later with their revamped power play. It was the Beniers-Johnson-driven unit that found the back of the net.
This week, Jack Han wrote about Kent Johnson’s power play versatility in his Hockey Tactics Newsletter. Han described KJ as the only skater in college hockey capable of playing all five spots in a 1-3-1 power play. While his teammates may not share quite that aptitude for rotation, Johnson and the entire Michigan power play generate their best opportunities through their passing and positional fluidity.
Beniers’ first period PPG was a perfect example. On Friday night, Beniers scored off a one-timer from the circles. On Saturday, Power and he swapped spots, with Beniers leaving the puck for Power to carry down to the half-wall while Beniers headed for the high slot. Power drew in the Spartan penalty killers with a few stick handles before returning it to Beniers, who made no mistake on a straightaway wrist shot.
Just under two minutes later, Nick Granowicz and Johnson hounded Spartan defenseman Nash Nienhuis behind the MSU net. As he so often does, Johnson emerged with the puck, zipping it to Beniers for a tap-in. Granowicz once again showed that he fits neatly alongside Beniers and Johnson between his skating and ability in puck battles.
As we well know by now, Michigan thrives in creating offense off the rush, so it was refreshing to see a workmanlike goal coming off the forecheck, especially considering that the team’s most skilled player helped make it happen.
After that dominant opening twenty minutes, the Wolverines would allow State to creep back into the game, conceding late in the second and early in the third to set up an anxiety-inducing finish, especially given the result of a certain football game that took place in East Lansing a week and a day ago today.
Brendan Brisson nearly iced the game with about a minute to play, but his full-ice empty-net bid struck the post. Nonetheless, Michigan held out to seal a sweep of their in-state rivals (and little brother).
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On Tuesday night at the Pretzel Bell, from the corner of Main and Liberty, Mel Pearson emphasized the importance of starting games on time. Pearson pointed out that the star-studded, much ballyhooed Wolverines should expect to draw the best out of their opponents on a nightly basis. For Pearson, last Friday’s hiccup against Wisconsin exemplified the perils of chasing a game.
This weekend, Pearson’s Wolverines heeded their coach’s warning and controlled both games from start to finish, the end result being two decisive Big Ten victories, albeit against one of the conference’s lesser sides.
Michigan will look to stick to that script next weekend, when they travel to Pegula Ice Arena for a two-game set with the sixteenth-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions.
Odds and Ends
As mentioned above, Matty Beniers was the weekend’s standout performer, offering two of his best games as a Wolverine to date. Beniers scored four times in the two games, but that was just the beginning of his impact. Beniers’ calling card is his 200-foot game—a shutdown defensive player, a tireless forechecker, an unflappable puck carrier. All of these skills were in full effect for the Massachusetts native this weekend. At the risk of nitpicking or perhaps pigeonholing Beniers’ game, I do think he has room to improve with respect to the efficiency of his routes. What makes Beniers so effective as a forechecker and penalty killer is his relentless effort; Beniers has no compunction about racing up and down the ice all throughout a shift whenever necessary. With that said, it does feel as though there is room to “work smarter, not harder” for Beniers. By sharpening some of his routes, Beniers could become even more effective without the puck. Nonetheless, this weekend, Beniers put forth an outstanding effort and was rewarded on the stat sheet.
The other big takeaway from this weekend, as discussed in the Friday night section of our recap, is the new division of labor on the power play. Brandon Naurato, a Michigan hockey alum who rejoined the team as an assistant coach tasked with running the power play this offseason after working in the player development department for the Red Wings, opted to divide the Wolverines’ top end talent between the two units with a more equal distribution of ice time between them. The Wolverines managed three goals on their ten power play opportunities on the weekend, so it must be said that the adjustment was reasonably effective. I like the idea of injecting some extra life into the power play, by changing up the formula a bit. With that said, I’m inclined to believe that, in the long-run, Michigan is better suited loading up a single top unit, particularly in decisive situations, than dividing that top talent between two different ones. It will be interesting to track that development as the season progresses.