The game was right there on Jimmy Lambert’s stick.
He cut toward the net and into the left faceoff circle, alone and waiting. The scrum on the other end of the zone resulted in Johnny Beecher caressing the puck away from the battlefield of bodies, and the freshman forward was looking to pass.
And he found Lambert, whose extended stick indicated he was ready for the pass and looking to score the easy goal — one that would break the 1-1 tie and win the Michigan hockey team the game.
But the puck slid toward Lambert. Then it slid past him. He whiffed on the shot and tumbled down onto the ice, sprawling on all fours as he looked to the distant puck, left to wonder what could have been in the eventual tie.
Only a minute later, the puck made its way back over to Lambert for a chance to redeem himself, all alone in the faceoff circle with his stick readied. He found himself in a similar position as before.
This time, Lambert connected with the puck, but it didn’t even come close to being on frame. He sailed his shot wide right, and another scoring chance was wasted.
“He fell,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “Nobody around him. Good opportunity coming down the slot, just whiffs on it. He had three or four (whiffs). Once you’re not scoring and you’re a forward, you really start to press. It can get in your head.”
But Lambert wasn’t the only Wolverine who couldn’t capitalize on opportunities; the team as a whole proved unable to finish pucks on net.
The Wolverines’ lone goal came in the third period off a tip-in by graduate transfer forward Jacob Hayhurst off a shot from senior defensemen Luke Martin. It seemed their offense had finally made it over the hurdle. But it was a false hope. Hayhurst’s goal was followed up by a string of missed opportunities.
One came from senior forward Jake Slaker, who fired the puck directly into the skate blade of a Golden Gopher. Another came from Hayhurst. And then three of four from Lambert. It didn’t matter the offense was getting significantly more shots to the net than in the previous period because it couldn’t finish on them.
“We’re struggling offensively right now,” Pearson said. “Boy oh boy, I wish I had some answers, but we just have to make sure we’re playing well defensively. The offense is gonna come, it’s just a matter of time, but we’re in a funk right now.”
On top of the fanned shots and overpassing, Michigan’s offense has been generated by a small group so far this season. On Friday night, that was apparent. Overall, it had 34 shots on net, but most came from a select group of four of five players including Slaker and freshman defenseman Cam York, who collectively had eight shots.
“We don’t score a lot of goals,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “We’re gonna have to find a way to all chip in. We have to start doing a better job of that. We had some open looks and guys whiff on shots, guys falling down. Great opportunities. We’re just really, really struggling on the offense.”
Contrasting the onslaught of offense in the third, in the second period Michigan fell flat. It tallied only five shots on net despite attempting 14, a stark contrast to the 18 shots it registered in the following 20 minutes.
Rather than shooting the puck, the Wolverines opted to pass. And pass. And pass. When they did manage to put the puck on net, it sailed wide or over the crossbar or didn’t even connect with a player’s stick.
And it was the wasted chances that plagued Michigan. Too many times had the extra pass across the crease fail and frustrate players. The hard-gripped sticks only got gripped a little tighter each and every failed attempt.
“We’re just not burying opportunities,” said Hayhurst. “We’re getting chances. As you can see we had a ton in the third, we’re just not putting them on the net.”
After losing three straight and tying Minnesota, but surrendering the extra point, it’s obvious Michigan’s offense needs to regroup.
What’s less obvious is whether the Wolverines will be able to do so before their standing in the Big Ten suffers even further.