MINNEAPOLIS — Seven minutes into practice on Thursday afternoon, Michigan coach Mel Pearson gathered his team at center ice.
The Wolverines, a day away from the first game of a best-of-three Big Ten Tournament series at Minnesota, lacked the focus and attention to detail Pearson wanted to see. After a quick reminder, the effort level improved, and Michigan carried momentum into Friday night’s game.
“They’ll show up and compete tomorrow,” Pearson said on Thursday. “But it’s — as a coach, you’ve watched the tapes. You’ve seen the team, as our staff has. We understand how good Minnesota is. Players just want to play. They don’t watch all that. They don’t understand, how — maybe at times how good (a team is). You can tell them that, but — we just wanted to get their attention today.”
Though the Wolverines eventually lost in overtime, Michigan entered the first period with energy and focus and lit the lamp first on Friday night. Pearson got his team’s attention.
But on Saturday, in a season-ending 4-1 loss, the Wolverines started the game about how they started practice on Thursday. And this time, Michigan wouldn’t be saved by the fact that how it started didn’t truly matter.
“I’m a firm believer (in) you play as you practice, for the most part,” Pearson said. “For the most part. You just want to make sure that you’re — we don’t play tonight. Thank goodness we didn’t play tonight, we’d be down 5-0, first period. It just — we’re sloppy.”
Saturday’s game mattered more than any other game had all season. The Wolverines were 60 minutes away from the end of their season, but they didn’t start the game like a team that was so close to elimination.
While it wasn’t quite the 5-0 deficit Pearson mentioned Thursday, Michigan was in a deep hole and trailed, 3-0, after the first period. The Wolverines played better in the ensuing 40 minutes, particularly in the second stanza. But by that point, the hole was too deep.
“They came out ready to play in the first and we were on our heels,” said junior forward Jake Slaker. “It’s tough to go down three in the first period and chase. I think we did it last time we were here and we had a little better comeback than we did tonight but, like I said, they came ready and we didn’t. And at that point, it was too late.”
Just as Pearson had warned his team before the series started, a slow start led to a deep deficit.
Michigan started better in the second period, outshooting the Golden Gophers 10-6 in the frame. The majority of Minnesota’s shots came on the power play late in the period after the Wolverines had spent the majority of the stanza putting pressure on goaltender Mat Robson.
“We were embarrassed,” Pearson said. “We played with a little bit more pride in the second period. We worked hard.”
Despite Michigan’s efforts in its best period of the game, none of the shots were close enough. None of the Wolverines’ scoring chances were truly ‘Grade-A’ chances. And when you’re down 3-0 in a game that could end your season, close isn’t good enough.
“We’ve had trouble scoring goals,” Pearson said on Saturday. “We really have all year, and that’s why we’ve been in so many tight overtime games and come out on the wrong end of those. But that wasn’t the case tonight. They were the better team.”
A late goal by junior forward Adam Winborg did little more than prevent Robson from getting a shutout. It was too late, way too late. Michigan knew it.
The Wolverines couldn’t clear the mental hurdle that comes along with getting in such a deep hole in an elimination game. Not starting on time put Michigan in a spot it couldn’t come back from, and it ended the Wolverines’ season.
“Mentally, it’s hard,” Pearson said. “It’s hard when you’re one game down and all of a sudden you’re down 1-0, 2-0. The mind is a powerful thing and I just don’t know if we were in the right frame of mind or believed we could come in and win this game tonight.
“If you’re in that spot, it’s a bad spot to be in.”