The No. 7 Michigan Wolverines (16-9-1; 8-8) are finally starting to hit their stride, but it didn’t seem that way at the start of the weekend.
In game one against the No. 6 Penn State Nittany Lions this weekend, if I told you the Wolverines were without forward Mackie Samoskevich and defenseman Jacob Truscott, you would have expected them to struggle. If I also told you the Wolverines were out-shot, 54-27, held a disadvantage in penalties and lost the face-off battle, 39-28, you would have expected a dominant Nittany Lions win.
However, that expected result couldn’t be further from what took place Friday night. Michigan was efficient, deliberate and delivered its best opening series game performance in more than two months.
The Wolverines got things going early when Ethan Edwards flipped a pass to Seamus Casey, who gave two would-be defenders enough sauce for seconds and created a passing lane. He was looking for a streaking Nolan Moyle, but the puck was blocked, and found the stick of Jackson Hallum instead who buried the first goal of the game.
A little more than three minutes later, the Wolverines were awarded the first power play of the game. Luke Hughes drove down the left side of the ice, wrapped around the net and connected with a closing Adam Fantilli, who fired home a blast near the right circle. The goal ended Michigan’s power play slump and despite trailing 11-2 on shots, the Wolverines led the game 2-0.
Less than 20 seconds into the second period, Fantilli scored again after he banged home a loose puck in front of the net. However, after a review the goal, was waved off (more on this later) and the momentum felt like it was starting to turn.
Less than two minutes later, defenseman Jay Keranen was given a game misconduct penalty and Penn State scored six seconds into the power play to cut the score to 2-1. Michigan rose up for the remainder of Penn State’s man-advantage and got back to work.
Casey secured his second point of the night after he skated into the zone, evaded four defenders, and fired a pass to Rutger McGroarty in the slot to reclaim a two-goal lead.
Entering this weekend, Penn State goalie Liam Souliere was one of the best in the Big Ten. But less than two minutes after McGroarty’s goal when Fantilli dished a beautiful no-look backhand pass to Philippe Lapointe in the slot to make it 4-1, Souliere’s night would be over.
Overcoming three-goal deficits is nothing new for Penn State who overcame the same deficit the last time they played Michigan to force OT. So when the Nittany Lions capitalized on a late turnover behind the net and cut the lead to 4-2 before the end of the second period, it felt right on schedule.
The final period was a stalemate until — in the final five minutes — all scoring hell broke loose. First, it was Fantilli with an empty-netter and the best celebration of the college hockey season. This goal, in fact, did count and made it 5-2 Michigan.
Next, it was Hughes’s turn for an empty-netter and his first goal since early December to extend the lead once again. Penn State answered with a sympathy goal to cut the lead to 6-3, but with less than 42 seconds remaining, this game was already over.
But not to be outdone, the Wolverines had to close the show in style. On a late 2-on-1 rush, Nick Granowicz found the older Luca Fantilli for his first career goal and the final of the game. Michigan’s 7-3 victory was a statement and the Wolverines picked up a much-needed three points.
While the scoring was impressive, goaltender Erik Portillo was the star. Portillo’s 51 saves were a career high and were the second most in U-M history since 1997-98.
1- G Erik Portillo (51 saves, .944 save percentage)
2- F Adam Fantilli (2 G, 2 A; 4 PTS)
3- D Seamus Casey (2 A)
The second game could not have started any worse for the Wolverines. Penn State scored less than 40 seconds into the game and scored AGAIN six seconds later on a redirection. Two-goal leads are far from insurmountable in college hockey, but as the first period unfolded, Michigan was able to clamp down defensively, but unable to make a dent on the scoreboard.
In the second period, things were starting to look up when Adam Fantilli scored to cut the lead to one. However, the officials decided to review a potential goaltender interference penalty that happened well before the scoring play. The officials not only ruled that their was goaltender interference, they determined there was enough evidence to award Penn State with a five-minute major and wiped Fantilli’s goal off the board.
The second time in two nights a Fantilli goal has been stricken from the books and it felt like nothing Michigan could do was going to work tonight. And then, things got worse.
Less than 2:30 later, Penn State scored again to extend their lead to 3-0. In the moment, it felt like a classic Team 100 two-game split. But Luke Hughes had other ideas.
With a little over 5:30 to go, Hughes danced around the left circle, left the defender in shambles, and hit a bar-down goal. 3-1, Penn State.
On the power play just over four minutes later, Hughes struck again, this time from the top of the right circle. 3-2, Penn State, and Yost was as loud as you have ever heard it.
In the third period, the Nittany Lions showed some resilience of their own and notched another goal. Michigan — perhaps inspired by the officiating malpractice that took place in the second period — challenged for goaltender interference. No dice.
Now facing a 4-2 deficit, Hughes was not going to be deterred. Just over five minutes into the period, Hughes threw a shot on net hoping for a redirect or rebound, but the puck leaked through and found the back of the net. Luke Hughes vs. Everybody!
Hughes finally got some support shortly after his third goal, when Luca Fantilli connected on LONG stretch pass to Dylan Duke in the midst of a Penn State change. Duker was streaking toward the net, put a nice move on the goalie, FELL, but still lit the lamp to tie the game.
Michigan was rolling and Yost had eclipsed the second period deafening roar by a mile. Much like Penn State, in their first series, the Wolverines had overcome a multi-goal third period deficit to tie the game. A tie would guarantee at least one point, but Hughes was not going to settle for anything less than a three-point regulation victory.
With just a little more than half a period remaining, Adam Fantilli danced around the right side of Penn State’s zone and collected defenders like vacation keepsakes. With all the attention on Fantilli, Hughes waited alone on the opposite side. Fantilli fired a cross-ice pass and Hughes unleashed a BOMB for his fourth goal of the night and put Michigan ahead for good, 5-4.
Michigan collected a massive six points and is finally developing some consistency night-to-night, but Hughes is the story. It was his first career hat trick and four-goal game of his Michigan career. Interim head coach Brandon Naurato called it: “Probably the best individual performance by a defenseman in Michigan history,” and it’s hard to argue against him.
Hughes — who had been on a nationally recognized slump entering the weekend — leaves the series with five goals and two assists. People keep asking and yeah, I think he’s back.
1- D Luke Hughes (4 G)
2- D Luke Hughes (FOUR GOALS)
3- D Luke Hughes (Cuatro goals)