EAST LANSING — Michigan coach Mel Pearson made it very clear from the get-go in his pregame radio show.
Dominate the offensive zone, or you will be dominated in the defensive zone. So in Friday’s game against Michigan State at East Lansing, the Michigan hockey team looked to dominate early — but that early lead wouldn’t last, as the Wolverines fell to Michigan State, 4-3.
The first few minutes played out exactly as Pearson had planned — attack the zone and reap the rewards. Within the first three minutes, the Wolverines had already drawn a penalty from their offensive pushes. A cross-check from the Spartans gave Michigan the early advantage.
When presented the opportunity to exploit the man-advantage, the Wolverines took it and nearly scored on their first attempt in the power play. Junior forwards Jake Slaker and Will Lockwood tried a one-two punch, where Slaker drew in the defense by wrapping around the net with the puck before passing it out to Lockwood positioned in front of the net.
Lockwood’s shot hit the crossbar, and the puck was cleared.
The second attempt, however, proved more successful. Winning the faceoff, Michigan brought the puck out to the blue line before sophomore forward Josh Norris took a one-timer from the faceoff circle. It rang in, aided by a screen set from Slaker.
And the pressure continued, as the Wolverines, immediately after the goal, provided another push that forced an interference call. The penalty was not converted, but Michigan had the momentum, controlling the pace of play.
“Critical times, you know, back-to-back in the first period,” Pearson said. “Any time we’ve got a power play — we didn’t do much after that first one. Thought we over-passed the puck, held onto it too long, and when you do that, they can just get in the penalty kill formation.”
Just as silence was ushered in the arena, Michigan committed an untimely penalty, one amidst traffic in front of the net to prevent any chances to a shot on goal. After the penalty, Michigan State had the Wolverines on their heels. The zone dominance turned in favor of the Spartans and eventually, a goal was rewarded for their efforts.
“We were chasing the puck,” Pearson said. “They’ve got control of the puck and we were chasing them all night.”
Just as a Michigan State power play ended, a shot went off goaltender Hayden Lavigne’s shoulder to tie the game at one apiece. The Spartans turned the momentum in their favor, and even a Wolverine power play couldn’t slow it down. In the third power play attempt for Michigan, it only managed two shots on goal while Michigan State threatened a short-handed goal.
The second period was deja vu for both teams, as the frame played out in near-identical fashion to the first. Sophomore forward Jack Becker tipped in a slap shot from senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi at the blue line, and the Wolverines took the lead three minutes into the period, only to be matched up by Michigan State once again. An early Michigan goal, a response from the Spartans and a questionable finish for the Wolverines defined the period, ending the frame at 2-2.
Michigan maintained the momentum, until Michigan State answered with a one-timer. Lavigne, again, got a touch on it, but couldn’t completely change the angle as it bounced into the net.
“We just didn’t take control of the game like we wanted to,” Pearson said. “Just sloppy. I thought we got outmuscled. We lost a lot of 50/50 pucks tonight, wrong side of the puck. We got guys trapped on the forecheck. Just a lot of mental errors tonight, and some of it was the grit and the grind.”
The game’s chippiness slowed down the pace. Both teams were called for unsportsmanlike penalties in one stance, and in many others, players had to be separated by the referees to continue the game.
But Michigan State received the edge of the physical play. It could be seen on the forecheck. It could be seen on scrambles for the puck. It could be seen anywhere on the ice. The Spartans outmuscled their way into good positioning, and near the end of the third period, it paid off. Lockwood committed a hooking penalty to prevent another dangerous shot from near the goal.
Michigan State had the advantage to open the third period, and they converted. The shot was saved by Lavigne, but leaked between his legs and through his padding.
The Spartans didn’t maintain their first lead of the game for long, however. Michigan responded almost immediately, with a goal by junior forward Nick Pastujov.
Into an offensive set, freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes, having drawn out the goaltender and defense, looked across the ice and found Becker with a wide-open net, but Becker whiffed on the shot attempt, instead tapping it to Pastujov for the game tying goal at 3-3.
The game went on with chances from both sides, but ultimately, the Spartans found the net again. A sparked turnover in the defensive zone by Michigan led to a shot straight on goal. Lavigne saw it and closed his legs on it, but the puck slowly leaked through and decided the game, 4-3.
“You’ve gotta get great goaltending on the road,” Pearson said. “You stop the ones, the grade A chances. He made some good saves tonight, but that’s not good enough.”