COLUMBUS, Ohio — After all the pre-game hype about a sellout crowd, a championship game rematch, and a long-standing rivalry, the Wolverines and Buckeyes did play hockey in Columbus, and the contest was decided on special teams.
With four power-play goals and near-perfect penalty killing, No. 10 Ohio State defeated No. 3 Michigan, 4-1, in front of the fourth-largest crowd in OSU hockey history.
“I think their power play was too strong,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “Obviously, they play with a lot of confidence. When they score on their first power play, that sets a trend … and gets them excited.”
It was Dan Knapp at 7:07 in the first who earned the first man-advantage marker, and the Buckeyes were 4-for-7 on the power play in the game. The Wolverines went 1-for-9, their lone goal scored by Milan Gajic at the 12:20 mark, with Michigan up two men because of a Buckeye in the box and a delayed penalty pending.
“I think we won the specialty team battle,” said OSU head coach John Markell. That was evident out there. I thought the game ebbed and flowed. I thought the first period was even and in the second, Michigan did a good job of making a push. We did a good job of keeping it to the outside. If you score at the right time, that can change the momentum of the game.”
OSU had two goals in the first, two in the third, and survived a string of consecutive penalties in the middle of the first that had the Buckeyes down at least a man for nearly five minutes.
But it was in the scoreless second period, after another Michigan five-on-three plus an additional Wolverine advantage, where Markell thought the game was really won.
“I thought in the second period that we weathered that, but they took advantage of it. They were getting to loose pucks in our end, and we couldn’t get changed … so we didn’t really weather it the way I wanted to weather it, but we got them killed off.
“The next stretch after that, where we kept a lot of their opportunities to the outside — and with some good goaltending — they couldn’t build any kind of momentum. If they had gotten one there, the game would have been different.”
Another momentum killer for the Wolverines was a disallowed goal during the power play. There was a shot from the top of the slot and it appeared that Brandon Kaleniecki redirected the puck into the Buckeye net, but referee Brian Aaron immediately waved it off, saying that Kaleniecki’s stick was high.
“Couldn’t tell if that was a high stick or not,” said Berenson. “The referee was right there.”
Both teams exhibited some nervous energy from the start, with Matt Beaudoin and Mike Brown going to their respective boxes for hitting after the whistle 45 seconds in. In the early going, OSU’s Andrew Schembri and Michigan’s Jeff Tambellini exchanged shots that hit the post, moments apart.
On the first goal, Knapp himself tried to center the puck from behind the net, and the puck either went to Sean Collins, who was credited with the first assist, or hit a Michigan player and ricocheted right behind Montoya, where it lay still in the crease until Knapp came from the dashers and poked it in. Or not. Knapp said that Bryce Anderson, who was also in the thick of it, may have had something to do with it.
“I threw it out to Colly, and he took a shot on net, and then I believe that Bryce shot it off my stick. I don’t care who scored. We’ll take it.”
The play that led to Gajic’s goal was beautifully begun by T.J. Hensick, who took the puck from behind the Buckeye net and circled the OSU zone clockwise before settling on the left point, where he passed to Brandon Rogers in the left circle. Dave Caruso stopped Rogers’ shot but didn’t close the gap between his right skate and the post, leaving just enough room for Gajic to tuck it in to tie the score.
“I think I could have stopped the play probably about 20 seconds earlier when they dumped it in because it was a delayed penalty,” said Caruso. “I should have just gone out, scooped it up, and it would have been done, but unfortunately, I had a mental fart and they scored.”
At 16:52, Beaudoin popped one home on an odd play that began at the Wolverine blue line. When Kyle Hood inadvertently popped the puck straight up into the air to keep it in the zone, David Moss’s stick broke and the blade went out of the zone, drawing several skaters. After an impressive hang time, the puck landed in the middle of Tom Fritsche, Brown, and Beaudoin. Fritsche and Brown battled as though taking a faceoff, and the puck came to Beaudoin, who fired from the left circle without hesitating, hitting the opposite side of the net.
Michigan goaltender Al Montoya looked especially good at the start of the scoreless second period, when the Buckeyes had two full minutes of power play because of Moss’s penalty for checking from behind as the first-period buzzer sounded. In quick succession, Montoya stopped Nate Guenin from close in, Tom Fritsche from the top of the slot, and Andrew Schembri from outside.
But trailing 2-1 to start the third, the Wolverines couldn’t stay out of the penalty box and the Buckeyes couldn’t help but take advantage. Rod Pelley netted his 10th power-play tally of the season at 1:37, a blast from the right point — his ninth power-play marker to come from that spot — that went by a kneeling Andrew Ebbetts before it passed Montoya, untouched.
At 10:28, Hood picked up Kenny Bernard’s rebounded shot and scored from the top of the slot. On both third-period goals, it looked as though Montoya may have been screened by his own players.
Michigan captain Eric Nystrom was clearly frustrated by the Wolverine penalty kill, which was operating at 65.5 percent in its first four games in January before Michigan came to Columbus.
“We’ve been working on blocking shots in practice, and we have video and we know what they’re going to do on the power play, we’re just not executing the PK. That’s partially my fault. I’m supposed to be the guy who goes out there and sets the tone on the penalty kill. When I’m out there for two goals against, it’s setting a bad example.”
Montoya had 26 saves in the loss, which was Michigan’s second league loss this year. “You know when you go on the road against a good team like this they’re going to have their moments and they’re going to have you on your heels, and they did, but Montoya kept us in the game,” said Berenson.
In his 14th win of the season, Caruso stopped 28, and credited the OSU defense for the final 4-1 score. “They played really well in front of me. They cleared out rebounds and saw a lot of shots.”
The Buckeyes were clearly pleased with the crowd, which was officially sold out but which wasn’t 17,500 strong; there were 14,777 people through the gate, still about 10,000 more than what OSU averages per home game.
“Coming out for warm-ups, there were actually people in the stands,” joked Knapp, as OSU’s fans are habitually late for home games. “When you step out onto that ice and it’s against Michigan and there are that many people, it’s a wonderful feeling. It really does help us out when there are 14,000 or 15,000.”
“We had a great bench tonight,” said Markell. “The guys were in a good mood and used the crowd in the right way. I compare it to last year [when] we had a big crowd, and we had a senior-laden team that used the crowd the wrong way — they were nervous and didn’t play very well, but they came out the second night. Our job now is to come out just as hard tomorrow night.”
Saturday’s rematch, slated for 7:05 p.m., will be the last regular-season meeting between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines. Berenson said the Wolverines would have to reexamine their special teams, while Markell said the Buckeyes will have to match Michigan’s intensity.
“We have to play the same hockey club with a burr under their saddle,” said Markell. “They’ll be wanting to come out of here with a split … and it’s going to be up to us to meet that same emotional level.”