DETROIT — Michigan Head Coach Red Berenson’s challenge to his team coming off the holiday break was to play better team defense.
Heading into the holiday, the Wolverines had lost four of their last five games, allowing 30 goals on 150 shots over that span.
Berenson’s Wolverines responded to his challenge Friday night at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Defenseman Matt Hunwick’s first two goals of the season combined with solid defensive play from both forwards and defense enabled Michigan to skate off with a 4-1 win over Michigan Tech in the opening round of the Great Lakes Invitational tournament.
“It’s kind of nice to score in a game,” joked Hunwick. “I’ve had one or two in practice. It is definitely good to get a couple of real ones to help get a victory.”
The win for Michigan sets up a Saturday night confrontation with rival Michigan State who advanced to the championship game earlier in the evening with a 5-2 victory over Harvard.
Michigan sophomore goaltender Billy Sauer, who had struggled with consistent play through the Wolverines difficult early December stretch, turned away 27 Husky shots and had his shutout bid foiled by a late Michigan Tech goal with only 1:16 remaining in the contest.
“We were able to depend on our defense and I think our defense really picked it up,” said Berenson of the Wolverines’ effort. “We got good goalkeeping, good defense and our forwards were better defensively than they’ve been.”
“It’s no secret that we’ve been concerned about our goals against,” continued Berenson. “So, tonight was an indication that we’re off to a good start.”
Michigan Tech had skated into the holiday break with a huge pair of victories at North Dakota, ranked 17th at the time. Their 8-8-2 record was their best heading into the GLI tournament since the 1997-98 season and the Huskies had hoped to make a strong showing in the tournament which they host annually.
“You have to give Michigan a lot of credit coming off the break,” said Husky Coach Jamie Russell.. “I didn’t feel we were very strong fundamentally or defensively. Taking care of things in our own end or in front of the net were not things that we did very well tonight. The one bright spot was that I thought the penalty kill was very good.”
Neither team was able to generate much offense through the great majority of the evenly played opening period.
Michigan managed to open the scoring late in the first period on a play set up by Kevin Porter giving the Wolverines a 1-0 lead at 18:43.
Porter controlled the puck with some nifty stick handling in the midst of several Husky defenders at the blue line. The Wolverine junior forward dropped a pass to teammate Matt Hunwick who circled around onto his off wing, drove to the net and snapped a wrist shot high over Husky netminder Rob Nolan’s glove on the short side.
The Wolverines offense busted out of their holiday break doldrums with a three-goal second period to take a commanding 4-0 lead after the second stanza.
Porter’s hard work along the boards produced a two-on-one break that keyed the first Michigan goal of the period. Travis Turnbull received Porter’s pass on the break, shifted the puck to his backhand and flipped it high over Nolan’s stick at 4:14.
After several close-in chances for Wolverine Chad Kolarik, the puck squirted free to Hunwick in the slot and the Michigan defenseman buried his second marker of the night high over Nolan’s glove at 10:11 to extend the Michigan lead to 3-0.
A nifty three-way passing play from Tim Miller to Morgan Ward and finally to Brian Lebler, who slapped it past Nolan, closed out the Wolverine’s second period scoring burst at 14:34.
Sauer’s shutout bid was snapped when Tyler Shelast scored a power play goal with less than two minutes remaining in the game.
Michigan Tech (8-9-2, 5-7-2 WCHA) will take on Harvard in the third place game Saturday night prior to the championship matchup of CCHA rivals Michigan (13-7-0, 8-5-0 CCHA) and Michigan State, who have already met three times this season. Michigan holds a 2-1 edge in the season series.
“We know Michigan State will be a tough team” said Berenson of the championship game with the Spartans. We’ve got to continue to work hard on our defensive play.”