DETROIT — Having lost five of its top players to the World Junior Championship and coming off an 18-day layoff, No. 3 Michigan looked sluggish against 1-14-1 Michigan Tech in the opener of the 40th annual Great Lakes Invitational at Joe Louis Arena.
The Wolverines struggled to find their offensive rhythm until late in the game, but prevailed 4-2 over the Huskies.
With the game tied at one with only 2:19 left to play in the second period, senior forward Jason Ryznar found classmate Charlie Henderson all alone in front an empty net.
Ryznar skated hard to the net from the left blue line before two Tech defenders upended him at the bottom of the left face off circle. While still in midair, Ryznar managed to get off a backhand pass to Henderson at the far post. With the Husky defense and goalie Cam Ellsworth completely fooled, Henderson easily found the back of the net to put the Wolverines up 2-1.
“I was going to shoot it, but someone started hooking me, so I turned around and centered it to Charlie,” Ryznar said. “I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there.”
Henderson later assisted on Ryznar’s third-period goal and David Moss’s power-play goal with only 4:27 to play gave Michigan a comfortable three-goal lead. Tech notched a late power-play goal by Tyler Shelast to make the final tally 4-2.
The Ryznar-Henderson combination was an unlikely one as Henderson has spent most of the year as a healthy scratch and Ryznar recently snapped an 11-game scoreless streak against Notre Dame on December 4. With the holes created by the World Junior Championship, Henderson got his chance to contribute against the Huskies and spelled senior David Moss as the center on the second forward line with Ryznar.
“Coming into this game there were a lot of question marks about our players who weren’t here playing in the junior tournament or who were injured,” Michigan head coach Red Berenson said. “I think the important thing was that with the players that were here, we were able to play a pretty good game. A lot of players stepped up with big games.”
One Wolverine to step up was junior goaltender Noah Ruden, who filled the shoes of Al Montoya, who left to defend the gold medal he and the U.S. junior team won at the World Junior Championships last year. Ruden played a solid game behind the Michigan defense, making 27 saves on 29 Husky shots. During Montoya’s absence last year, Ruden made his first career start in a 4-1 loss to Boston College at the GLI.
“Just playing those two games last year helped settle (my) nerves today,” Ruden said. “Also, that was a close game with BC until the last period. Today was a close game for pretty much the whole game, so that experience helps.”
On the other side of the ice, Tech’s Ellsworth gave a stellar performance in net, recording 44 saves, just two shy of the GLI record of 46 set by Colgate’s Geoff McMullen in 1970.
“I thought Cam played great,” Michigan Tech head coach Jamie Russell said. “He stopped numerous big chances, especially in the first period they certainly held the momentum. I thought he played a very consistent 60 minutes of hockey and gave us every chance to win. I thought he was outstanding tonight.”
Tech was unable to take advantage of Michigan’s short bench, which featured only 10 forwards and three complete lines.
“I think a lot has been made of the players they don’t have, but when I checked they still had 10 NHL draft picks and Nystrom and Tambellini are still first-round NHL picks,” Russell said. “They’ve got a roster and I thought their goaltender played a good game as well.”
Michigan’s Brandon Kaleniecki opened the scoring with his fourth goal in five games just 4:58 into the first period. The Wolverines looked very sloppy until senior Milan Gajic found Kaleniecki in front of the net. Ellsworth appeared to play Gajic’s pass as shot and was caught off guard when Kaleniecki shot it past him.
Tech’s Tyler Skworchinski tied the game just before the midway point of the second period on a bizarre goal that required several minutes for the officials to rule a goal. As Skworchinski fired the puck between Ruden’s pads, Michigan’s David Moss pushed a Tech player into the net, which caused the back end to lift into the air. The puck slid past Ruden and came out the other side of the net and hit the back boards.
The officials ruled that since the net never came off its moorings, and the Michigan player caused the net to lift up, the goal counted.
As Michigan moves to the championship game, Berenson knows that his team’s task, against either New Hampshire or Michigan State, will be much tougher. Both teams are better equipped to exploit Michigan’s depleted lineup.
For Tech, the consolation game will be yet another chance to prove themselves against a top program the Huskies have played only one weekend series all season against an unranked team (Alaska Anchorage).