MINNEAPOLIS — It was over before it even started. Rem Pitlick made sure of it.
With a goal to his name already and up 3-0 with three minutes left in the second period, Minnesota's star center gathered a pass from Tyler Sheehy in the right circle and without hesitation knifed the puck into the top of Michigan’s net, ending whatever small pulse the Wolverines’ season clung to.
“They came out to play and we didn’t,” said junior forward Jake Slaker. “It showed on the scoreboard.”
At times this season, the Michigan hockey team looked like the lethal, fast-skating team that most pegged it to be coming into the season.
Others moments weren’t as rosy. The Wolverines would often come out and win a Friday game, and outshoot their opponent on a Saturday, only to be outdone by costly turnovers in games they largely had a chance to win.
Saturday’s 4-1 loss to Minnesota was neither. Call it a season-ending loss or call it a decisive nail in the coffin to a season once rife with hope. But either way, by the time the buzzer sounded, Michigan was nothing but a shadow of its once-lofty potential.
“They jumped us,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “We weren’t ready to play. That’s been an issue from time to time this year. Other games we’ve been able to claw ourselves out of it. The last time we were in here, we were down three-zip and we had to claw our way out of it. At this time of year, when teams are desperate, you can’t do that.”
Pearson always mentioned the Wolverines’ fourth line as a group that he was comfortable matching up with any line in the country. But just five minutes into the game, the Golden Gophers’ Tommy Novak burned freshman forward Nolan Moyle past the boards, letting the 127-game veteran waltz into Michigan’s crease unguarded and flip in Minnesota’s first goal behind freshman goaltender Strauss Mann.
Junior forward Will Lockwood responded by shaking Minnesota goaltender Mat Robson out of his net but missed a golden opportunity to tie the game by sending the puck wide of the left post.
And after cutting down on defensive zone turnovers, senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi mishandled a centering pass into the hands of Scott Reedy. Seven minutes after Minnesota notched its first goal, Reedy danced around every Wolverine on the ice and doubled the Golden Gophers’ lead.
Michigan’s power play remained inconsistent, if not dormant, as it had been for the series and most of the season — the Wolverines didn’t convert either of their two tries in the first two periods and leave Minneapolis 0-6 with a man advantage.
With an early exit after last year’s run, Michigan has more questions than answers on its plate.
Will Quinn Hughes leave? If he does, how will the Wolverines replace him and senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi’s 53 points?
What about Josh Norris and his injury? Can this year’s underclassmen step up and provide more consistent offense? Will next year’s recruiting class get to campus and contribute?
“(We need) good recruiting,” Pearson said. “We gotta hit the recruiting hard. We've got some good pieces, but we're a ways away from being the team we need to be.”
“I think there's a lot of things that can change,” Slaker added. “It's just one of those things where we get back to work and work on … just about everything.”