Michigan hockey advances in NCAA tourney; Quinnipiac up next on Sunday

Steve Kornacki
Special to The Detroit News

Michigan’s hockey team used a suffocating offense that allowed American International College little chance to breathe Friday afternoon in an NCAA Regional opener.

The Wolverines (30-9-1) scored early in periods and often in a 5-3 win at PPL Center in Allentown, Pa. They will face Quinnipiac on Sunday on ESPN2 at 6:30 p.m. The Bobcats beat St. Cloud State 5-4 in the late game on Friday.

FILE - Michigan’s hockey team used a suffocating offense that allowed American International College little chance to breathe Friday afternoon in an NCAA Regional opener.

A victory in that game punches a ticket to the NCAA’s Frozen Four, April 7-9 at TD Garden in Boston.

“I liked our starts in the first, second and third periods,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said on his post-game radio show. “We got a little loose (at times) and have to tighten some things up, but the main thing is to win and advance.”

Michigan, the tourney’s No. 1 overall seed, assured it wouldn’t be upset with a lethal offense that ranked third nationally entering the game with 3.9 goals per game.

Senior left wing Garrett Van Wyhe (No. 5 on the season) and freshman defenseman Ethan Edwards (No. 3) got it started for a 2-0 lead in the first 4:16 of the game.

The Yellow Jackets (22-13-3) made it 2-1 with a goal credited to Brian Rigali that went in off the back of Hobey Baker Award finalist defenseman Luke Hughes, who assisted on the first goal and had a goal rattle in and then out of the net.

Sophomores Matty Beniers — another Hobey Baker finalist — and Brendan Brisson tallied their 20th goals of the season in the first 2:43 of the second period for a 4-1 lead.

Brisson, who hit the post in the first period, scored on a vicious one-timer. He took a chip pass from behind the boards by defenseman Owen Power and buried it, beating goalie Alec Calvaruso of Livonia. Power went No. 1 overall to the Buffalo Sabres and Beniers No. 2 to the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Draft.

“I thought their goaltender, Alec Calvaruso (26 saves), played a really good game,” said Pearson. “It could’ve been 4- or 5-nothing without him, and we hit a few posts and what-not.”

Brisson, who has scored one goal in three consecutive games, was selected the game’s first star. Beniers was second star and Power third star.

“He’s always around the net,” Pearson said of Brisson. “He could’ve had three, four, maybe five today. He had good opportunities. But give them credit. He scored on basically a tap-in, and it was good to see him score on the power play. He can shoot as well as anyone.

“Good job by Brendan Brisson of getting his hands dirty (and working hard).”

Kent Johnson (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Brisson (Las Vegas Golden Knights), the forwards on Beniers’ line, each had a pair of assists. Beniers added an assist as the “First-Round Line” totaled six points.

“We’re all smart players and we have skill,” Beniers said on ESPNU after the game. “We work hard. You know, I think we move the puck pretty well and we have some shooters on our line.

“So, we’ve been able to have success, and hopefully keep it going.”

Michigan’s seven first-rounders and 13 overall draft picks — following the lead of Beniers — returned for this season with the goal of winning the program’s first national title since 1998. The Wolverines’ nine NCAA championships are tops.

AIC got its second goal from Justin Young at 13:45 of the second period, but scrappy freshman left wing Dylan Duke notched his 10th of the season for Michigan to answer just 28 seconds later.

The Yellow Jackets had a two-man advantage for 20 seconds late in the second period, but the Wolverines thwarted two power plays to take a three-goal lead into the third period.

Blake Bennett scored his 19th of the season on AIC’s fourth power play of the game with 6:12 remaining to play. Michigan is a highly-penalized team, and that’s one part of its game that Pearson hopes can be shored up for this stretch drive.

Goalie Erik Portillo, the Most Outstanding Player in Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament title run, also was on his game, making 29 saves.

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.