Yes, there’s the adage about the two-goal lead. But there’s no adage against being tied at one, no adage about playing from behind and no adage about losing steam in the last five minutes and dropping a winnable game.
Junior forward Garrett Van Wyhe said it best after Michigan’s nail-biting overtime loss to Minnesota on Monday:
“With any game, you’re gonna face adversity, and it’s all about how you respond. Hockey is a game of mistakes, and just the way we respond to is ultimately what it comes down to.”
For the first two periods of Monday night’s game, the Wolverines looked like they were easily going to skate their way to the Big Ten championship game. Their offense was playing as well as it has all season, controlling the puck and forcing the Golden Gophers to miss on breakout passes. They notched a power-play goal early on and followed it up with a second without a response from Minnesota.
But Minnesota came out swinging in the third period and put the game into overtime — a reality that looked almost impossible just 20 minutes earlier.
“We got away from playing our normal defense in the zone,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We just started chasing guys a little bit and we have to be better there. We have to outnumber the puck carry and do a better job of that.”
As the clock wound down and both teams got more desperate, the cracks in the Wolverines’ defense became more apparent. Junior goaltender Strauss Mann faced seven shots in the first six minutes of overtime, and the last was a lethal blow. It was the first time all season that Minnesota won after starting from behind.
After dominating the fourth-ranked team in the country for 40 minutes, Michigan left the ice empty handed in an all-too-familiar manner.
The loss was reminiscent of the Wolverines’ Jan. 9 defeat at the hands of Michigan State. After shutting out the Spartans 9-0 a day before and leading late in the third period, Michigan began to crumble. Two Michigan State goals in the last two minutes added another loss to Michigan’s record.
“We got the lead there and we kind of laid back a little bit,” sophomore forward Johnny Beecher said after that game. “We took our foot off the gas, and they got a couple lucky bounces.”
It wasn’t the first and certainly not the last time the Wolverines struggled in the face of adversity. More recent was Michigan’s seemingly easy match-up against Arizona State on Feb. 27. The Sun Devils notched a goal against Michigan late in the first period, and while the Wolverines were able to find the equalizer fairly quickly, the unexpectedly close game seemed to rattle the players. They looked uncharacteristically sloppy as the game continued and the contest ended in their first tie of the season.
Of course, there are examples of Michigan standing up to a challenge. Facing Wisconsin last month, the Wolverines’ faced an early deficit before dominating the Badgers 5-1. But that game seems to be more of an exception than a trend. Michigan has let its opponent score first in 12 of its matchups this season, failing to come back in nine of those games.
At its best, this team comes out hard at the first puck drop and looks like it can beat anyone. At its worst, it struggles to find the back of the net and falls flat. And, at its most maddening, it looks like a team that can play 55 minutes just to come apart at the first sign of trouble.
While it can be expected that players would show more fatigue after a grueling first two periods, junior defenseman Nick Blankenburg thinks it’s an issue of mentality.
“Down the road and down the stretch, there’s gonna be a lot of adversity and we got to learn how to handle that,” Blankenburg said. “And I thought for the most part the guys did a pretty good job, and that is something you can still get better at as we go on.”
Finishing third in one of the most competitive leagues in the country is nothing to scoff at, and neither is a 15-10-1 record. But with undoubtedly tougher challenges likely awaiting it in the NCAA Tournament, Michigan will have to address this mental hurdle if it hopes to accomplish its goal of getting to the Frozen Four. But just as there’s an adage about the two-goal lead, there’s another that comes to mind:
Old habits die hard.
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