Well, that was no ordinary series split.
When Michigan found itself trailing Penn State 4-2 going into the third period of both games in State College this past weekend, conventional wisdom would have suggested that the Wolverines were going to mail it in and walk away with another loss.
After all, this was a trip to the No. 5 team in the country, with the top offense in all of college hockey. Only one of the Nittany Lions’ active forwards has less than five points. To put that into perspective, just seven of 26 Wolverines have reached that mark. They were already fighting an uphill battle to begin with and didn’t get a chance to practice due to their plane arriving a day late.
In each instance though, certain players dug their feet in and showcased a resilience that Michigan hadn’t seen before in other series splits.
For example, junior forward Will Lockwood notched assists on three of Michigan’s four goals in the Friday’s third-period comeback. With 25 seconds left in the game, Lockwood stole the puck from a Penn State defender and lobbed it to junior forward Jake Slaker for the game-clinching goal.
“I thought we were working pretty hard most of the game,” Slaker said. “And even though we weren’t getting a lot of bounces at all points, we just kept our heads down and kept onto the grindstone. Once we got that little relief we sort of took a deep breath on the bench. It was a game where you’re holding your breath the whole time.”
Even while freshman goaltender Strauss Mann struggled initially in each game — he allowed four goals in each game’s first two periods — he honed in on shots near the crease as the games wore on, taking many Nittany Lion slapshots right to his chest and jumping out from under the net when necessary. In Mann’s first back-to-back starts within a series, be bounced back after a gut punch, just like he did after giving up six goals in his first start.
“It definitely gives us confidence that he’s going to make some big saves for us and gives us a few more chances in the offensive zone because we know he’s going to bail us out,” Slaker said. “But that goes to say that we gotta take a few less chances and try to help him out in the defensive zone.”
Though Michigan ultimately fell six seconds into overtime in the second matchup, it climbed back into the game with another four-goal third period, with two of those coming from the fourth line of sophomore forward Dakota Raabe and freshmen forwards Nolan Moyle and Garrett van Wyhe.
To sustain the production and level of offensive play they had in State College, the Wolverines certainly need that to be the norm rather than the outlier, and to stay resilient on both sides of the puck.
“I like the stick to it, the stick to it,” Pearson said. “And we’ve got enough guys that can score so I’m not worried about that, but I’m concerned about us defensively.”
Time will tell if Michigan can find that same resilience on the blue line as it did offensively. Sure, Penn State’s offense is a juggernaut, but Mann and the offense can’t always will the Wolverines’ to a win. Sometimes, all it takes is a little fight to spark that.