There’s a saying in sports that the score of a game doesn’t always reflect how close it was. Sometimes misused, it was emblematic Saturday night when the Michigan hockey team fell, 3-1, to Minnesota.
The third goal the Wolverines gave up was an empty netter in the final minute, while the second was the result of a fluke play where sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann tried to collect a rebound off the boards behind the goal line, but the puck bounced too far to an opposing player in the crease.
And chance played a pivotal role on the first goal, too. The Golden Gophers were on a two-on-one against freshman defenseman Cam York, whilst redshirt junior forward Luke Morgan hustled back. Both players dove to choke the passing lane, but the puck ultimately bounced off York, then off Morgan’s left skate to a Minnesota forward near the crease.
If any of those bounces went another way, the game could have had a different tone. Thus there is weight behind the saying. But this raises the question, what kept the game close to begin with? And the answer to that is, undoubtedly, the defensive effort.
“The one nice thing, not nice, but the one underlying thing here is we’re playing so hard defensively and doing a lot of things on the right side of the puck,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “So when we do start to score, we’ve already got that mentality of how we need to play away from it, and how hard we have to play defensively.”
While the offense struggled to score till late, the defense was cohesive. On the penalty kill, the players skated in unison to block shooting lanes. There were many more dives throughout the game than those on the conceded goal — many that actually worked. For instance, following a faceoff in the Wolverines’ attacking zone late in the opening period the Gophers got a quick rush, but sophomore defenseman Jack Summers went on all fours to keep the game close early on.
“I think that’s been real key for us we’re not scoring a ton right now but we’re playing great defensively,” Mann said. “And my defensemen are playing really great in front of me which is great and that’s really a recipe for success in the future.”
A substantial portion of Minnesota’s scoring chances weren’t due to mistakes in the defensive zone, but rather simple giveaways on the attack that led to odd-man rushes. This was evident late in the third period when junior forward Dakota Raabe took a weak slap shot from near the blue line. Due to the lack of pace, forward Blake McLaughlin grabbed it out of the air, and thus Michigan had to defend another rush.
“We’ve got control of the puck and we whiff on it and they poke it and they’re gone and it ends up in the net. It’s frustrating,” Pearson said. “It’s really frustrating. I feel bad for our guys, actually, because they’re working hard. They’re working their tails off and we don’t have anything to show for it.”
Mann was the backbone of the defense. Ignoring the gaffe on the second goal, he made key saves all night. Seven minutes into the game, junior forward Jack Becker lost possession right in front of the Wolverines’ net resulting in an easy chance for the Gophers, but Mann deflected the puck upward to get out of harm’s way.
Late in the second period, he made a stellar glove save off a two-on-one attack to keep his team within one. And he stayed calm despite the mishap on the second goal. This was pivotal midway through the final frame, when Minnesota moved the puck back and forth from near the left circle to the slot. Mann maintained his position and moved quickly to block the shot when it finally came.
“I feel bad for him because he’s losing games,” Pearson said. “And you look at his record and if you didn’t know his goals against you wonder, ‘Oh this kid just keeps losing, why do we keep playing him?’ But he continues to do a great job. … You look at the goals against and we can’t fault him on any of that for sure.”
Not faulting Mann and the defensive unit is the most logical, as without them the Wolverines likely wouldn’t have had any shot at winning. But Michigan must also complement it’s defensive unit with a better attack, otherwise the efforts will continue to go to waste and the team will have to keep residing to mere sayings.