MINNEAPOLIS — Michigan knew that stopping Minnesota’s power play would be key to winning the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal series.
Friday night, the Wolverines (13-15-7 overall, 9-10-5-2 Big Ten) managed to stop the Golden Gophers (17-15-4, 11-10-3-0), the first five times they had the man advantage. But on the sixth, Minnesota’s dangerous power play wouldn’t be denied again.
Ten minutes into overtime, forward Rem Pitlick came down the left wing and started to skate around behind Michigan’s net. At the last second, he dropped a pass to forward Brannon McManus, who sent a one-timer from the doorstep of the crease past freshman goaltender Strauss Mann, winning the game for the Golden Gophers, 3-2.
“Pitlick was coming behind the net and I had to kind of respect him,” Mann said. “A guy popped out in front and just got that one-timer. (I) barely missed it, but that stuff’s gonna happen throughout a game and you just have to hope you get more bounces than the other team.”
For the second straight game, the Wolverines went from leading in the third period to falling in overtime.
Michigan led by as many as two goals in the first game of the best-of-three series, but the Golden Gophers added pressure in the third period to tie, and eventually win.
“It’s a tough way to lose,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “Especially with the importance of the first game in a short series like this. I thought we had two really strong periods and came out like we wanted to, ahead, and in the third period, they pushed back. And we had our chances in overtime, and I thought we had some really good chances to end this.”
The Wolverines gave up a power play to Minnesota early in the extra period when junior defenseman Griffin Luce was called for hooking. But Pitlick got whistled for interference, which eliminated the man advantage, and Michigan couldn’t capitalize on its own power play after the Luce penalty expired.
Freshman forward Garrett Van Wyhe and sophomore forward Dakota Raabe created a two-on-one breakaway while the Wolverines were shorthanded in what ended up the final minute of the game, but Van Wyhe’s pass went just past of Raabe. His ensuing shot was weak enough that goaltender Mat Robson could easily brush it aside, and the Golden Gophers ended the game on the next trip down the ice.
“I think I just chipped it in too far,” Van Wyhe said. “The rink’s really wide, so the puck was really wide. The D caught up and just (went) straight back to the net. Just trying to throw it, trying to get a bounce. Too bad he wasn’t a righty or he could’ve caught it a little bit better, but we worked hard all game. Everyone did. Just too bad we didn’t get that bounce.”
Michigan got a lucky bounce early in the game when sophomore forward Michael Pastujov opened the scoring in the first period. His centering pass intended for freshman forward Jimmy Lambert bounced off multiple sticks and into the net behind Robson.
But for the rest of the game, the Wolverines couldn’t get a bounce when they needed it.
“Garrett Van Wyhe makes a great play and passes it to Dakota Raabe who just deflects it and it doesn’t go in,” Pearson said. “That’s where you need to get a break and bounce. We missed a couple in overtime and Becker misses a great chance in overtime on a faceoff, so does Van Wyhe. It’s tough. I feel bad for our team because they’re playing well enough to win games, but they just can’t get a break.”
Michigan appeared to get a break — five of them, actually, thanks to a strong penalty kill — but with Minnesota converting at an almost one-in-four rate on the power play, the Wolverines were unlikely to keep the Golden Gophers without a power-play goal.
It just so happened that the penalty-killing unit had its first real breakdown of the game at exactly the wrong time.
“You can’t go to the well too many times,” Pearson said. “A power play really carries a team and we had some bad penalties. We talk about it, but it’s one thing to do that and another to go out in a game and know what’s going on.
“I thought Strauss Mann gave us a chance. He had to be our best penalty killer and he was. Dakota Raabe, Garrett Van Wyhe, all those guys did a fantastic job. It’s unfortunate when you can’t stop that power play goal at the end of the game.”
Thanks to Minnesota’s late game-winner, despite the penalty killing success earlier in the game, Michigan now looks at Saturday’s game with full knowledge of the stakes.
It’s a best-of-three series, and the Golden Gophers have a 1-0 lead.
If the Wolverines lose tomorrow night, their season is over.