ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan entered Tuesday night’s opener knowing that their big challenge was the search for offense, having graduating most of their top scorers from last year’s squad that advanced all the way to the national championship game.
Lindsay Sparks placed his name right at the top of the list of hopeful offensive contributors with a hat trick in the sixth-ranked Wolverines’ 5-0 shutout of Niagara Tuesday night at Yost Arena.
Michigan goalie Shawn Hunwick picked up right where he left off last season making 30 saves, many of them of the spectacular variety when the game was still in doubt, sharing a shutout with Adam Janecyk who entered the game for the final 9:32 and made eight stops of his own.
“I think we were opportunistic,” offered Michigan coach Red Berenson “We got lucky around the net. Some goals went in that on other nights wouldn’t go in.”
Sparks was the leader in making those lucky bounces pay off.
“Lindsay’s playing with a lot more jump, a lot more confidence,” said Berenson. “He’s playing with a sense of urgency. Right from day one, he’s been a better player.”
“It’s huge for my confidence,” added Sparks. “Our line was clicking tonight. It seems like everything I shot found the back of the net. That third one was a flutter puck that bounced off three guys, I think.”
Evidence for Berenson’s assessment of his team’s good luck was supported by the shots on goal totals. Hunwick and Janecyk combined for 38 stops while the Wolverines managed to send the puck toward Niagara netminder Carsen Chubak 37 times.
“At our end, I thought that Hunwick was a really big factor in the game, the second period especially,” Berenson pointed out. “Even though we outscored them in the second and took that comfortable lead, we didn’t outplay them.”
“It’s huge,” said Hunwick of the effect of a shutout on his level of confidence. “We’ve had three games in four nights at Yost. You just want to get in there and play. In college hockey, you practice for four days, then you play two games, then you practice for four more days. It’s a good feeling.”
Michigan and Niagara last met in October 2009, when the Wolverines eked out a 3-2 win. This game was different.
With six untested freshmen in the starting lineup, Michigan reaped immediate dividends from two of the first-year players in the first period on the way to a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes.
Freshman Zach Hyman bagged his first point as a Wolverine when he set up Sparks from in close only 1:02 into the opening stanza.
While killing a Wolverine penalty mid-period, Travis Lynch managed to break two-on-one into the Niagara zone with Derek DeBlois. Caught from behind by a Niagara player in the circle to the right of Chubak, Lynch whirled and threw a hopeful shot in Chubak’s direction that somehow eluded the Niagara goaltender at 9:06 of the intial period.
Hunwick received the only assist on Lynch’s goal and provided solid goaltending during the opening period to complement his offensive contribution.
After clutch goaltending by Hunwick early in the second period, two more goals by Sparks, completing his hat trick, and one more by Chris Brown staked Michigan to a commanding 5-0 two-period lead.
Sparks stole the puck at the left point with teams skating four-on-four, skated in alone on Chubak, shifted the puck to his backhand and lifted it over the Purple Eagle goalie at 14:07 of the second to increase the Michigan lead to 3-0.
Just over a minute later at 15:12, it was Sparks again, this time on the power play, finding the back of the net to finish off the third leg of his hat trick. The junior took a pass in the slot from Alex Guptill and whipped a shot at the net. The shot deflected off Purple Eagle defenseman Matt Williams’ stick past Chubak.
Michigan added a fifth goal at 18:53 when Hyman used the boards for a nifty neutral zone pass to Brown streaking down the left wing. Brown carried the puck to the face-off dot to Chubak’s right and rifled a shot high into the opposite corner of the net.
The Wolverines (1-0-0) get right back into action with a two-game set against Bentley on Friday and Saturday at home. Niagara (0-1-0) hits the ice again at RIT on Saturday night.