ALBANY, N.Y. — Sometimes the hockey cliches ring true. In a 5-1 NCAA tournament first-round victory over 15th-seeded Niagara, Michigan’s best defense was its offense.
A relentless Michigan attack fired 39 shots on Niagara goaltender Juliano Pagliero, 30 of which came in the first two periods, and dominated puck possession, pinning the Purple Eagles deep in their own zone for what seemed like minutes at a time.
“We didn’t have any answer for their top line,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “There are some special players across the bench and they’ll be playing on television for a very long time.”
Niagara, already smaller, weaker, and without Michigan’s great skill and depth, was forced to play defense for long stretches, chasing around the speedy Wolverines while they piled on the scoring chances early.
“That can be dangerous,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We went through that last week with Northern Michigan when we had all the shots and they had the goals.”
While Niagara was able to keep the game relatively low-scoring with a tremendous defensive effort through two periods, all of the effort exerted left little in the tank for NU in terms of generating offense.
“We weren’t really able to get anything going in the offensive zone or in transition,” said Burkholder. “Our transition game usually generates some offense for us, but tonight it didn’t.”
Blame it in the Purple Eagles’ tired legs from trying their best to hold down the fort while the Michigan offense fired shot after shot.
“Their team speed, especially their top line, makes it hard to get the puck into the zone and get chances. They are a tough team to play against,” said senior captain Matt Caruana.
At least early on, when the tired Purple Eagles allowed Michigan chances, Pagliero was up to the task, turning away 28 shots after two periods, giving his team a chance to make a third-period run.
Ultimately, Pagliero was outshined by Hobey Baker favorite Kevin Porter. The senior sniper tallied a career-high four goals, breaking the NCAA tournament record for goals in a game during the regional stage and marking the last time since 1990 that a player scored four times in a tournament game.
“I guess Kevin Porter’s not in a slump anymore,” quipped Berenson.
“He’s the best player in the nation and this should solidify him as the Hobey Baker winner,” said Chad Kolarik. “We’ve been praising him all year and I’m his campaign manager.”
Three of those goals came in the form of a third-period natural hat trick. First, Porter deposited a nifty backdoor pass from Kolarik to put the Wolverines up 3-0. Less than two minutes later, he struck again, cleaning up a loose puck on the right post and sliding a backhand into the net. Finally, the senior captain put the proverbial nail in the coffin with an empty-netter in the waning moments.
Kolarik assisted on all five Wolverine goals. Max Pacioretty also added a goal and an assist.
“Obviously this line and our power play was the difference in the game,” said Berenson.
Michigan outshot Niagara by an 11-4 margin in the first period, but came up empty on the scoreboard. Pagliero and company stood strong in the defensive zone, denying the Wolverines on several scoring bids, including a lengthy five-on-three late in the period.
As the first frame wound down, the underdog began to believe in itself a little bit more, which was displayed in an emphatic clearing attempt on the penalty kill as the horn sounded to end the period.
“The longer and longer they stay in the game, the more confidence they get, just like Holy Cross did [in its NCAA tournament victory over Minnesota],” said Kolarik. “You get one bad bounce and the game’s over and you lose, so we needed to score quickly.”
Pacioretty came up with that quick goal less than a minute into the second period with the Wolverines still enjoying carryover power-play time from the end of the first. Aaron Palushaj fed the puck down to Kolarik at the goal line, who quickly found Pacioretty in the slot for the quick shot and goal.
“That really got our energy up and after that we started to roll,” said Porter.
The Wolverines will hope to take that type of dominating effort into their matchup with Clarkson Saturday evening at 7 p.m. The regional final will mark the first time since 1962 that the two schools have faced each other, dating back to Red Berenson’s senior year for Michigan.
Just don’t remind him that it was a 5-4 loss to the Len Ceglarski-coached Knights.