Standing with his arms crossed and his head down, Nick Blankenburg let out a deep sigh.
The sophomore defenseman’s dejected body language displayed every emotion he felt after Michigan’s 4-3 loss to Michigan State on Thursday night. Disappointed. Frustrated. Defeated. Maybe even a little bit heartbroken.
Two-and-a-half hours earlier and a world away from where he found himself after the loss, Blankenburg lit the lamp for the Wolverines’ first goal of the night late in the first period. For the few moments of celebration, Blankenburg rode the high that comes with opening the scoring in a must-win rivalry game, making the scene after the loss all the more striking.
Michigan carried all the momentum into the locker room after the first period. Blankenburg’s tally — a wrist shot from the slot that went through forward Mitchell Lewandowski and curled under the bar to beat goaltender John Lethemon — came with just 27 seconds remaining in the period.
It was the first time in the last four games that the Wolverines scored first. For about 20 minutes, it looked like Michigan was going to find a way to get itself out of the hole it has dug itself into of late. In five Big Ten games with 15 possible points to earn, the Wolverines have only one.
“Just gotta be better,” Blankenburg said. “I think, like I said, there’s times where were just get too high or get too low and then you can see that in the game. Or some shifts don’t go our way, and you can kinda see that happen. (Assistant coach Kris Mayotte) says bend, don’t break, and I think we gotta keep working on that.”
Thirty-two minutes of game time after his goal, Blankenburg watched the puck hit the back of the net once again. This time, it came off the stick of forward Logan Lambdin and gave the Spartans their first lead of the game. Blankenburg’s head dropped as he slowly skated back to the bench.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson has spent most of this season harping on his team not starting on time and not playing with desperation when it’s needed.
The Wolverines showed flashes of that desperation at moments earlier in the game, but when it really mattered, it wasn’t there. Pulling Mann with 98 seconds left was too little, too late to salvage a game Michigan twice led by two goals.
“I think we just get too complacent at times,” Blankenburg said. “I think we get away from our game and I think we need to just be a little bit more simple when we do have the lead. Even when we have the lead, I think we need to play like we’re down by one, like desperation in the last five minutes of the third.”
Added Pearson: “I just didn’t like our pushback, though, after they got up, 4-3. I know we’ve been through a lot. We have to find a way to continue to play and push back.”
In the end, a few key lapses early in the game and a third period largely devoid of that desperation Pearson wants to see did the Wolverines in.
After sophomore forward Garrett Van Wyhe gave Michigan a 2-0 lead early in the second period, it took just 36 seconds for Michigan State to strike back. Defenseman Butrus Ghafari fired a shot from the left point that Mann never saw coming. 2-1.
Freshman forward Johnny Beecher extended Michigan’s lead back to two goals on a highlight-reel sharp-angle shot, but it wasn’t long before the Wolverines lapsed again, and Michigan State was able to capitalize. 3-2.
“Even 3-1, we had a bad change on the bench,” Pearson said. “A couple guys, we changed it and they didn’t hear, we actually had only 4 guys on the ice when they scored, I think, but we gotta stick together. I keep talking about how we’re not far off, but some guys have to make some serious changes.”
On the tying goal, junior forward Dakota Raabe turned the puck over right in front of Mann. The Spartans’ best scorer, forward Patrick Khodorenko, was right there to pounce on the puck. His first shot caught Mann’s pad, but a player like that doesn’t miss twice. He buried the rebound. Tie game. 3-3.
And on the power play halfway through the third, Lambdin put Michigan State ahead for good, 4-3, and Michigan’s winless streak extended to six games. With a stretch of five games on the road coming up, this was a game the Wolverines couldn’t afford to lose.
“We just gotta be ready to play,” Blankenburg said. “Like, we gotta play a full 60 minutes, and I know I’m saying that a lot, but, like, that’s the truth. It was literally — we played 38, 40 minutes of good hockey tonight and we played 20 bad minutes and we were up 3-1 and they scored three straight. We just can’t allow that to happen.”
Saturday night’s matchup in East Lansing is unlikely to give Michigan a better chance to break the skid than Thursday’s game did. The same is true for next week’s trip to New Hampshire, and the following week’s trip to Wisconsin.
The Wolverines are now five games into Big Ten play with only one point to show for it. All five have been one-goal games late — the two-goal deficit to Minnesota came on an empty-netter — but that doesn’t matter at this point.
Michigan needs to win — soon. If it doesn’t, what’s shaping up to be an ugly season will get even uglier.