At the end of the first period, everyone at Pegula Ice Arena took a breath.
In the opening three minutes, Penn State had scored two goals, and Michigan had scored one — and earned a game misconduct along the way. Somehow, the Wolverines managed to kill that penalty off, and they even tied up the score going into the intermission.
But that chaotic first period gave way to an utterly shambolic second period for the Michigan defense. In a span of 20 minutes, what looked to be an evenly matched affair collapsed into what would become a 9-5 defeat for the Wolverines.
The flow of play Thursday was similar to how Wednesday’s game — a 3-1 Michigan victory where nearly the entire third period was played in the Wolverines’ defensive zone — ended. The key difference was Strauss Mann. While the junior goaltender had been nearly unbeatable with 38 saves in the series’ first game, he was unable to bail out his defense Thursday night. As a result, he was pulled in favor of freshman Erik Portillo after giving up his sixth goal midway through the second period. Portillo would go on to forfeit a pair of goals himself.
“We’ve just got to be a lot more disciplined,” senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg said. “We’ve got to play a team game that starts in our D-zone … and we can’t cheat for offense. We’ve got to back check and just play more simple.”
The Wolverines’ somewhat overzealous approach on defense was at least partially caused by the game’s tumultuous start. Two Nittany Lions goals within the first three minutes forced Michigan’s defensemen to adopt a more offensive focus. Early on, that risk paid off — Blankenburg netted two goals to tie the game in the first period.
But soon after, the defense collapsed, especially on the penalty kill. Shortly after the Wolverines took their first lead early in the second, an interference penalty from sophomore forward Nick Granowicz put them on the penalty kill. Just 15 seconds in, Penn State forward Kevin Wall found forward Aarne Talvitie wide open on a cross-crease pass that went untouched by the Michigan defense, and Talvitie leveled the game at three.
From there, it was more penalties, more failed penalty kills and more lackluster defense. Midway through the period, a post-whistle scuffle sent senior forward Michael Pastujov and sophomore forward Eric Ciccolini to the box for roughing. The Nittany Lions converted on that power play, and followed up with another goal 15 seconds later. Near the end of the period, Michigan got caught with too many men on the ice — another power-play goal for Penn State.
“We just didn’t read very well,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Pucks sort of got to sticks for them tonight, and a couple bad clearing attempts, just a lot of little things that added up. It’s nothing major, but there were a lot of little things that came into it tonight.”
It’s important to remember that the Wolverines are a young team. Despite their talent, mistakes were always going to happen this season.
But even for a young team, a response has to come at some point. Throughout the second period, each time it looked like Michigan might pull itself back into the game, a penalty or another mental mistake stalled any momentum. For the Wolverines to truly compete for the Big Ten this season — and against No. 5 Minnesota next week — they’ll have to find a way to keep those mistakes from piling up.
“We just couldn’t get any sustained momentum,” Pearson said. “We just kept shooting ourselves in the foot.
“We beat ourselves tonight.”
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