ALLENTOWN, Penn. — With 20 minutes left in a blowout of Quinnipiac, all that stood between Michigan and the Frozen Four was itself.
The Wolverines decided to make their path more difficult.
Michigan boasted a 4-0 lead heading into the third period, but its defense collapsed to start the final frame. The Bobcats scored three goals in the first 10 minutes of the third, and the Wolverines’ struggles to stop them almost cost themselves a spot in the Frozen Four.
“I attribute some of that to being a young team and not realizing how difficult it is to close out games and close out teams when their season’s on the line,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “So it’s a real good lesson for us.”
That lesson proved that there’s plenty for the Wolverines to learn. With Quinnipiac’s back against the wall, Michigan made dangerous mistakes that could have cost it the game.
Chief among those problems: The Wolverines bent under unrelenting pressure. Bobcats’ forecheckers took them to the boards hard, forcing turnovers and fighting for every rebound and loose puck.
The pairing of senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg and freshman defenseman Ethan Edwards especially struggled under that pressure, and Quinnipiac jumped all over their mistakes. Nine minutes into the third, Edwards blew a tire carrying the puck out of his zone. As the Bobcats reacted quickly and pounced on the loose puck, he could only watch as it turned into a goal.
On the third goal, Edwards and Blankenburg played tight to the net to defend a wraparound. They didn’t see forward Desi Burgart crash the net behind them, and he popped the loose puck into the net.
The Wolverines seemed destined to fully blow their lead, but they battled back thanks to timely empty net goals. That success in the end, though, can’t detract from how close Quinnipiac came to completing the comeback.
“I think we took it a little easy after the second period there,” sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo said. “But I think it’s a great learning experience for us.”
Similar third period mistakes have become a staple of Michigan in the postseason. Against Minnesota in the Big Ten Championship, the Wolverines allowed two power play goals in the final minute. And facing American International on Friday, they conceded a goal midway through the third period that kept the Yellowjackets within striking distance.
At this point in the season, those collapses can be disastrous. One loss will end Michigan’s season, and it came dangerously close to ending on a Sunday night in Allentown.
The Wolverines framed the near-collapse as a learning experience, and they will have to learn to tighten up their defense in the third period. Opponents are just as hungry for postseason glory — and won’t stop fighting for it until the very last second. There’s no room for Michigan to let its foot off the gas against teams like Denver, Minnesota State and the Golden Gophers — with the Pioneers awaiting in the Frozen Four in two weeks.
The next week gives the Wolverines a chance to process those lessons, but they need to finally apply their teachings to their next game.
If Michigan doesn’t, its season could end sooner than it wants.