GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — In single-elimination hockey, any team that plays hungry from the first drop of the puck gives itself a chance to win.
Friday, the Wolverines gave themselves a chance to do more than that, making a statement in their 4-1 schooling of Wisconsin by outshooting the Badgers 18-4 in the first period, capitalizing on their first power play, and forcing Wisconsin to play down a man for eight of the opening 20 minutes.
The game was a two-man clinic administered by Wolverines Jeff Tambellini and T.J. Hensick. Tambellini had two goals and two assists and Hensick had a goal and two helpers, and was instrumental on Tambellini’s first goal, drawing the penalty that led to the power play — that led to the early 1-0 lead.
“We’re not trying to send a message to anybody,” said Tambellini. “We’re just trying to prove to ourselves that we can play at our top level, and that was one of our best games of the year, on both sides of the puck.”
The Badgers, with seven freshmen and six sophomores, were outmatched by the Wolverines, a team that has won at least one NCAA tournament game for 11 years running.
“We looked like a young team watching an older team take control,” said Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves.
“In the first period, we were killing a lot of penalties and that definitely was a factor. Having to kill against a good power play, certainly in the first, was a factor.”
The Wolverines took a 1-0 lead on Tambellini’s first goal at 7:08, exactly 10 seconds after Hensick drew a slashing penalty from Badger Josh Engel while breaking in alone. Chad Kolarik passed from the left circle to Tambellini at the right point, and the Wolverine’s one-timer beat Badger goalie Bernd Brckler — who was screened by Michigan captain Eric Nystrom — stick-side, clean.
“It’s scary when that thing comes because Tamby can really rip it,” said Nystrom, who had his back to the net. “When you’re facing the puck and you don’t hear it hit the boards, there’s a 90 percent chance that it’s going in.”
Brandon Rogers made it 2-0 for Michigan when he took advantage of a Hensick rebound at 13:48 in the first. Hensick came in with the backhand from the bottom of the slot but lost the puck to a Wisconsin defender, who tossed it right back to Rogers at the right point.
The Badgers settled down in the second period and the shots were even at five each, but Michigan came out ahead in the stanza, when Hensick bounced a puck in off Engel’s skate at 18:00 to make it 3-0, on a two-on-one break with Tambellini right, Hensick left.
Wolverine Jason Dest actually started the play in the Michigan zone, taking out a Badger along the boards to free the puck. Tambellini took it up the ice and dished across to the crashing Hensick at the last minute, and Hensick tipped it into traffic from the left post, earning his 100th career point as a Wolverine.
“In the second period, I thought we played harder,” said Eaves. “We didn’t execute with the puck as much as I would have liked to have seen, and that third goal was kind of a big goal.
“I thought in the third period, our young kids still battled and our goal was to bust that goose egg and we did that. But the game was already out of reach. The great start already paid off for them.”
Tambellini wristed his second goal of the night from the right circle, short-side, at 7:04 in the third to ice the game, but Wisconsin captain junior Adam Burish spoiled Michigan goaltender Al Montoya’s shutout, scoring from directly in front of the Wolverine net at 14:43.
Montoya faced just 18 shots in the game, most from the perimeter.
“There are a lot of guys who chipped in offensively tonight, but there was a lot of good defensive effort tonight,” said Nystrom. “The penalty kill did a good job, and there were a couple of times it was a little scary, with plays that just missed the net or were broken up at the last second, but our penalty killing has been strong lately.”
The Wolverines were 1-for-8 on the power play, the Badgers 0-for-3.
Michigan head coach Red Berenson echoed Eaves’ assessment of the importance of the Wolverines’ quick start. “We were fortunate that we got the first power-play goal. That gave us that edge, that confidence and the momentum, and then you get the second goal … was important because we knew Wisconsin had trouble scoring, and you don’t want them to get too much hope.
“I like the way our team played as the players mentioned — defensively, the intensity, the physical part of the game because Wisconsin’s a physical team, and I thought we held our own against them.
“And then we need high-end players like Tambellini and Hensick. They make the difference in a game. They just need a loose puck.”
The Wolverines (31-7-3) will face Colorado College in the final game of the regional Saturday, at 5 p.m. in Van Andel Arena.
“We know Colorado [College] is maybe the best team in the West,” said Berenson. “Certainly, I had them right up there in the polls, and up until the last couple of weeks I think everyone else did, too. We know they’re a great team, a prolific team, two great scorers, a great goalie, a great power play, and it should be a tremendous hockey game tomorrow.”
The Badgers end their season with a record of 23-14-4, but return most of this year’s young squad next season.
“After the game, Coach said, ‘Let’s learn a lesson from this,’” said Burish. “If any of you have been in a dressing room after a season when it’s some guys’ last games of their careers at a place, it’s a pretty powerful feeling in that dressing room right now. [Alternate captain] Tommy [Gilbert] and I being juniors, it kind of sets in that we’ve got one more kick at this thing.”