ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan sophomore Eric Nystrom hasn’t filled the net as often as he’d like this season, so he decided to focus on playing defense.
But Friday night, he and Dwight Helminen, another sophomore who hasn’t been as productive as he hoped, took over the Wolverines’ offense. The forwards were responsible for all of Michigan’s scoring in its hard-fought 3-1 win over Northern Michigan at Yost Ice Arena.
Nystrom and Helminen, two of Michigan’s top offensive players as freshmen, have seen their numbers drop off in the second half this season. Both were glad to find the net Friday .
“The puck hasn’t been going in like it was last year,” Nystrom said. “If it’s not going in you just work hard in the defensive zone, finish your checks, and things tend to go your way. That’s what kind of happened tonight.”
Nystrom opened the scoring at 3:16 in the first period after teammate John Shouneyia won the draw in the left circle. Nystrom’s one-timer from the slot found the back of the net for his seventh goal of the year.
The game then turned into a goaltenders’ duel, with both Michigan’s Al Montoya and Northern Michigan’s Craig Kowalski making key saves and denying chances until the final period.
In the closing minutes of the second period, Kowalski denied a Helminen breakaway and the shot off the ensuing rebound, but Helminen got revenge early in the third.
The speedy center poked in a rebound off a Nystrom slapshot to give the Wolverines a two-goal cushion and steal some of the Wildcats’ momentum.
“Those are huge goals in games like this, where maybe the other team is getting a little physical momentum going,” Nystrom said of Helminen’s eighth tally of the season. “They’re banging the bodies and getting the puck in deep, and a goal like that just takes the wind right out of them.”
Northern Michigan recovered just over seven minutes later, when Mike Stutzel beat Montoya from the left wing at 11:51.
Michigan has struggled when leading in the third period this year, but Helminen made sure the Wolverines avoided a late collapse when he earned his second goal of the night. He wristed a shot past Kowalski at 17:42 to ensure the win for Michigan.
The Wildcats had taken five straight against the Wolverines, including the last three meetings at Yost. Kowalski earned shutouts in two of those matchups, but freshman Montoya got the best of Northern Michigan’s senior netminder tonight.
“I thought that Montoya was excellent,” Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle said. “It’s always frustrating when a guy plays well like that, but we have to put more shots on, we have to get more chances in front of the net. He’s a good goalie and you have to be able to beat him in tight situations.”
Michigan coach Red Berenson was also pleased with Montoya’s play, despite some close calls. The Wildcats nearly scored several times when the Wolverines’ young goalie strayed from the crease and barely got back in time. But that’s nothing new for Berenson — he compares Montoya to another Michigan goaltender that started as a freshman and liked to take risks.
“He’s like Marty Turco,” Berenson said. “He takes a lot of chances. But he’s like another defenseman. He does a lot of good things with the puck, and it really makes a difference back there.”
With the victory, Michigan moved into a tie for second place in the CCHA with Ohio State. The Wolverines trail league leader Ferris State by four points, and Helminen emphasized the importance of Friday’s game — and every game after it. He likened the rest of the conference schedule to postseason play.
“This is the stretch run here,” Helminen said. “We know what we have to do and that’s pretty much it — playoff hockey from here on out.”