ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Pyrotechnic displays added to the electric atmosphere before and after The Big Chill at the Big House, the long-awaited battle between Michigan and Michigan State played outdoors at Michigan Stadium Saturday in front of a record-breaking crowd of 113,411.
Fireworks of the goal-scoring kind from Wolverines freshman defenseman Jon Merrill and senior captain Carl Hagelin were the difference in the game. Merrill and Hagelin bagged a pair of goals apiece, leading Michigan to a 5-0 win in a game which was nearly overshadowed by the awesome surroundings and record-setting crowd.
“Pretty good show, eh?,” a clearly pleased Michigan coach Red Berenson said to kick off his postgame news conference.
“It was something we looked forward to,” Berenson said. “We tried not to talk about it a lot, but I knew it was coming. Once the ice was laid down and we started practicing, you could see this was going to be an unbelievable event. The weather cooperated. It couldn’t have been better. I don’t think you could put this whole event on, with those intangibles, and get a better result.
“You couldn’t have a home crowd like that and disappoint them. I think our team did a really good job of being focused and ready to play. We got the early goals in the first period. Those were important goals.”
Reminiscent of the late-season surge he led last season, Michigan goaltender Shawn Hunwick took the place of Bryan Hogan, who suffered a groin injury in the pregame warmup.
Hunwick replaced Hogan, sidelined with a groin injury then as well, late last season and led the Wolverines to a CCHA tournament championship and a run into the NCAA tournament.
In the cold, windy climate of Michigan Stadium Saturday, Hunwick turned a similar feat, stopping all 34 shots fired his way by Michigan State, posting the Wolverines’ first shutout of the season.
“Hogan, as I told you on Thursday, was picked to play this game,” Berenson said. “In the warmup before the game, Hogan went down with a groin injury. He couldn’t play. It wasn’t [just] sore. There was no way he could play. Hunwick knew then that he was going to have to play and he was ready. It gives your team an added sense of urgency, but the kid [Hunwick] just never missed a beat. It didn’t seem like it bothered him at all.”
“To be honest with you, I was a little scared,” Hunwick admitted. “I wasn’t really prepared to play. You try to do your best in practice to get ready, but it’s not the same. You’re not mentally as sharp as you would have been. After Hogie [Bryan Hogan] went down about halfway through warmup, I tried to take as many shots as I could.
“Same thing happened last year. We started showing up and we started playing great D. Same thing today. Guys were blocking shots. Guys came back to the net on the back check. Hunwick made the saves he should have made and a few great ones as well.”
Michigan’s power play, anemic for most of the season, came to life and provided three goals on four chances.
“I think only one other game this year we had three power-play goals,” Berenson said. “We try and stay out of the penalty box so we don’t end up playing a special teams game, and tonight we won that game.”
“The first one deflected off of our stick and Palmy [goaltender Drew Palmisano] had no chance on that,” Michigan State coach Rick Comley said about Michigan’s power-play success. “I think the third one hit our defenseman in the seat and bounced on their stick. Sometimes the puck drops where you need it to drop, and sometimes it doesn’t. They’re skilled, and when they get opportunities, they’re good enough to take advantage of it.”
Berenson was quick to laud the efforts of Merrill and Hagelin effort in addition to the goaltending.
“He’s been probably as consistent a player as we’ve had and he’s a freshman defenseman,” Berenson said of Merrill. “For him to step up in a game, an event like this is pretty special. He’ll never forget that.”
Said Berenson of Hagelin: “For me, this was a bounce-back game for Carl. We need him to have a good game for us to have a good game. When you have Olympic-size ice out there and half of Sweden came to watch him, then he better play well, and he did.”
After an initial 10-minute adaptation period to the outdoor conditions, Merrill found the back of the Spartans net twice within two minutes, his fourth and fifth goals of the season, giving Michigan a 2-0 lead after the first period.
On the power play at 12:04, Merrill one-timed a banked shot off a Spartans defender past Palmisano from the top of the right circle on a feathered pass from fellow blueliner Chad Langlais.
Matt Rust did most of the work on Merrill’s second marker just under three minutes later at 14:54.
Rust deftly stickhandled his way into the slot and flipped the puck to Merrill, who beat Palmisano again for the two-goal Michigan lead.
Michigan lengthened its lead during the second period to 3-0 on a power-play goal by Hagelin.
At 12:12, Hagelin waited stealthily at the corner of the Spartans net and was rewarded when Rust’s shot rebounded to him. Hagelin banged the carom into the empty Michigan State net for the Wolverines’ second power-play goal of the game.
Just over four minutes earlier, the Spartans nearly narrowed the lead to one when a bounding puck crossed the Michigan goal line just a slim fraction of a second after a sprawling Hunwick accidentally dislodged the net post as he fell backward.
Hagelin and David Wohlberg added third-period goals for Michigan.
Easily lost in the hoopla of the event was the fact that three important CCHA points in the standings were at stake.
Michigan entered Saturday’s game in third place in the CCHA standings, two points back of Miami and just one point behind Notre Dame.
Michigan State visited Michigan Stadium in 10th place in the CCHA rundown, closing out the 2010 portion of its CCHA schedule.
“Hopefully, this will give us a boost for the second half,” Berenson said. “This is a league game, too. It’s an important game. We only had one game this weekend. That was an important three points.”
“The whole thing was great,” Comley said of the spectacle the event produced. “If you can separate losing and the negativity that goes with losing, you can’t as a person involved with hockey experience anything better than what you experienced.”
“I don’t know that it [the event] will be in perspective by the time I hit bed tonight, which will be in less than an hour,” Berenson chuckled. “At some point, we’ll realize that this was really something.”
Both Michigan (10-5-4, 9-3-1-0 CCHA) and Michigan State (6-9-3, 3-8-1-0) break for the holidays until the Great Lakes Invitational at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on Dec. 29-30. The Wolverines play Michigan Tech in the tourney opener, and the Spartans follow with a contest against Colorado College.