Mel Pearson had an uneasy feeling while walking down the ice to his place on the bench.
The third period was about to start, and the Michigan hockey team had a three-goal advantage against Michigan State, yet Pearson couldn’t get the trepidation out of his stomach.
Why did his team being up three goals give him such a sense of nervousness? Shouldn’t it give him assurance knowing his team had a safe cushion going into the final frame?
Rather than feeling confident, Pearson understood the nature of a three-goal lead and thereby, deficit. Especially in hockey, where one play can spark a snowball effect, it’s essential to maintain focus for a full 60 minutes. But when you believe you’re safe, when you let down your guard, take your foot off the pedal, kinks in a seemingly-insurmountable lead start to show.
Because the reality of a three-goal lead is one side will be trying to preserve themselves knowing they don’t have to risk anything to win and the other side will be playing with urgency and desperation, like a cornered animal, knowing the only way out is through.
“Things can happen in a hurry, and you’ve gotta make sure you’re ready,” Pearson said. “And you’re focused and dialed in. As much as you try, they had a little bit more urgency to their game. That’s all it takes.”
Pearson's fears started to materialize.
The third period started exactly as he expected. The Wolverines took their foot off the gas, and the Spartans were playing frantically, trying to make something happen.
“It just takes one goal,” Pearson said. “One spark for them to get in there.”
Michigan State coach Danton Cole sputtered when he tried to explain that the team should approach a three-goal deficit game no differently than a normal game. He is a proponent that you should play a certain way, and that shouldn’t change regardless of the situation.
“Any deficit or even if you’re ahead two or three goals, it’s win every shift,” Cole said.
But the Spartans did play differently. They played with more tenacity, knowing that they had to create more opportunities to make up for the hole they dug themselves in. So they shot everything, playing a more active and riskier game.
“Down 3-0, everyone's gonna shoot everything they can, trying to get a goal one or two, just one, so we gotta just try to shoot everything,” Michigan State forward Patrick Khodorenko said. “May seem like we’re trying to be a bit more urgent, but I think that’s how we have to play, just shoot from everywhere against this guy.”
On the flip side, the Wolverines just tried to endure.
Michigan State was pressing, and Michigan was holding out.
“You got to play a little different,” senior forward Nick Pastujov said. “You definitely play a lot less high risk. At that point as long as we keep them out of our net, we can sustain a win there. Just a little bit safer.”
Added Pearson: “We got a little too cute at times and they were pressing. They pressed us right off the get-go in that third period. I just did not like our intensity to start. Sometimes, you get the 3-0 lead and then you cheat on offense a little bit more or you lay back and think, ‘OK, we’ve got this one in the bag. Save some energy.’ But it doesn’t happen like that.”
The duality of the situations was the reason for unease for Pearson.
But as time ticked down, and the possibility of a comeback crept further and further away, the Spartans drew the conclusion that Michigan had already firmly embraced all period. When the horn sounded, the Wolverines came away with a 3-0 win — the same margin with which they started the period.
“It just takes their momentum out of it,” Pastujov said. “It’s pretty disheartening. I think that’s what we did to them. … Three is just such a dagger, especially late like that. It kind of changes your whole mindset going into the third.”