MINNEAPOLIS — It was, as Michigan coach Red Berenson said, the same old story.
The Michigan hockey team has struggled with consistency all season, and that didn’t change when the second half began Friday night. The Wolverines’ offense has stumbled, often spending large chunks of time in its own defensive zone, while the defense surrenders a high amount of shots, forcing the goaltender to make save after save.
The story was no different against No. 9 Minnesota (4-1-0 Big Ten, 12-5-2 overall), as the Golden Gophers outshot Michigan 45-24 en route to a 5-2 win.
Dealing with the absence of freshman forward Will Lockwood and the Olympic size of Mariucci Arena, the Wolverines could not establish a consistent attack, and a less than stellar performance on defense only compounded their issues.
“We’re not a gifted team,” Berenson said. “We’re not last year’s team. We’re not going to lead the country in scoring. In fact, goals are hard for us to score. How many games have we scored three goals?
“We have to understand that. We can’t give up three (goals). Any time we give up three, chances are we’re going to lose that game. We’ve got to be stingier defensively. We’ve got to play with more defensive pride and more defensive awareness. … It’s intensity on the defensive side, not just the offensive side.”
The Wolverines (1-4-0, 8-10-1) took an early 1-0 lead when senior forward Evan Allen found his linemate Max Shuart at the top of the crease deep in the Golden Gophers’ zone, and Shuart’s one-timer beat Minnesota goaltender Eric Schierhorn for his first goal of the season.
“Max (Shuart) played second-effort hockey,” Berenson said. “He played with some desperation. So what happens? He has a good game. He separates himself from the rest of the team. … He knew how tough it was going to be in here.
“…We need our whole team playing as hard as Max Shuart played.”
From there, however, the Golden Gophers took over the game. Minnesota controlled possession for most of the night and constantly tested senior goaltender Zach Nagelvoort. Nagelvoort, who stopped 40 of 45 shots, was forced to make several impressive saves from the get-go, but couldn’t stop the Golden Gophers from eventually breaking through.
“There’s only so much (he) can do,” Berenson said. “He can’t score goals. He’s got to stop the first shot — that’s his job. And if they beat him with a shot that he can save, that’s on the goalie. … He’s seeing screen shots through traffic. He’s got to make the save, there’s gonna be rebounds, and rebounds are on our team to get rid of and to pick up men. And that’s where we didn’t do a good enough job.”
After Shuart couldn’t convert on a short breakaway, Minnesota came right back down the ice to tie the game at one when forward Rem Pitlick beat Nagelvoort short side.
A little over two minutes later, forward Tommy Novak got in on the scoring action with a perfectly-placed deflection off a Ryan Collins shot from the blueline, giving his team a lead it would not relinquish.
Michigan had a chance to escape the period with only a one-goal deficit, but gave up a third consecutive goal with just 1.7 seconds left in the frame when Minnesota’s Mike Szmatula hammered a rebound past Nagelvoort.
The second period was even more lopsided — the Golden Gophers outshot the Wolverines 13-5, controlling the puck in Michigan’s zone for most of the frame.
The Wolverines did not tally their first shot until nearly seven minutes had passed, when sophomore forward Brendan Warren stole the puck in front of Minnesota’s net and beat Schierhorn for a short-handed goal. The Golden Gophers, though, stretched their lead back to two when forward Tyler Sheehy scored off another rebound in front of Nagelvoort.
Any chance Michigan had of completing a comeback, however improbable, was erased after a pair of crippling penalties.
Senior defenseman Nolan De Jong was called for unnecessary roughness after checking Minnesota defenseman Jake Bischoff, leading to a five-minute major and game misconduct, while Warren was sent to the box for tripping to give Minnesota a 5-on-3. Shortly afterward, Sheehy sniped one past Nagelvoort to extend his team’s lead to three.
The loss leaves Michigan with more questions than answers — the Wolverines, recognizing the importance of the series, had hoped to start the second half of their season with some much-needed momentum. Michigan entered the night facing an uphill climb back to the NCAA Tournament, ranking just No. 34 in the Pairwise.
And after Friday’s loss, the Wolverines are rapidly running out of chances to improve that ranking.
“They’re a good team,” Berenson said. “They’re as good as anybody in the country. … But we have to be better. We can’t worry about them. We have to be better.”