MADISON — The second the puck was secured and the whistle was blown, the previous play was called for review.
Jimmy Lambert skated over in front of the review booth as the referee informed the crowd of the assessment. The sophomore forward was desperate to plead his case, but there was no judge and jury, no gray area for opinion to sway to.
When the replay debuted on the big screen above center ice, the hard video evidence showed three things as clear as day.
There was a minute and forty seven seconds remaining in the third period. The Michigan hockey team was down 3-2 to Wisconsin. And the puck, so carelessly tapped toward the seemingly empty net by Lambert, did not cross the goal line.
“I mean, that’s the difference in the game,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “We whiff on a wide open net, but that’s the way it’s going.”
Harrowed by blowing a two-goal lead built in the first period, the Wolverines upped their aggression in the third period to create the golden opportunity needed to tie the game and, eventually, win it. All game outside of the initial frame, they were haunted by blown Grade-A chances — easy tap-ins and open nets — but in the dying minutes of the game, they were just looking to make one more. And then the perfect situation arose for Lambert.
He forechecked a Badger against the boards to keep the puck in the offensive zone before tossing it to the blue line for senior forward Will Lockwood and freshman defenseman Cam York to reorganize an attack. The puck soon made its way to Nick Blankenburg who shot it from the right faceoff circle.
Wisconsin goaltender Daniel Lebedeff closed his legs, but his reaction was a little delayed. The puck made it through the five-hole. However, it was slowed upon the brief contact with Lebegeff’s legs and as it inched toward the goal line, a mad scramble began.
Lambert was the first to recognize it, but Lebedeff and the two Badgers surrounding him soon caught on.
Lambert closed in on the puck and swiped at it, only able to catch a piece. The soft speed of his redirect wasn’t enough to convert the goal. Lebedeff had sprawled on his back to reach over and wall off the puck as it skirted on the goal line but not over. It bounced off his glove and out of the crease.
“That’s the difference,” Pearson said. “That’s what it’s boiling down to right now with our team. It’s just a bounce or a break here.”
It would have been a goal that tied the game and brought back momentum to the Wolverines after three unanswered goals from Wisconsin. It would have been a goal that brought Michigan closer to its first conference win in seven tries. But instead, the play became just another whiff emblematic of the scoring struggles, the inability to finish great looks, that have plagued the Wolverines all season.
“I can’t really say that they’re the better team tonight,” said senior forward Jake Slaker. “But they got the win and that’s really all it comes down to. You can’t measure wins in hard work or who played better, it’s all about results.”
Just how hard work and better play become minute in the face of a loss, close calls and near-goals are all the same when it pertains to losing. There is no measure for how close a team was to winning, only that they didn’t win. Slaker made it clear.
“Tonight, they got the result.”
And if the Wolverines want the result to go their way, opportunties like Lambert’s have to be converted.