Michael Pastujov threw his head back in anguish.
The junior forward’s shot dinged off the crossbar and away from the net.
Twelve minutes after the puck dropped, Pastujov generated what would be one of Michigan’s best scoring chances of the game. He wasn’t the only Wolverine unable to finish an opportunity. They didn’t experience a shortage of chances Friday night, just a failure to capitalize on them.
And in the end, failure to bury the puck in the net cost Michigan (15-13-3 overall, 10-9-2-1 Big Ten) the game, as it fell, 2-1, to Notre Dame (13-12-6, 8-8-5-3).
“ … It was an ugly game tonight,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “There wasn’t a lot of great plays. It was tight checking and physical and we just didn’t get the bounce. They did. We’ve got to play with more urgency and sense of desperation.”
Scoring didn’t start until the third period, when with just under five minutes elapsed, Strauss Mann faced a shot from near the face-off circle. The shot slowly rolled between his legs. He turned around to stop the puck from crossing the goal line, but Fighting Irish forward Cam Morrison tapped it in before Mann could save it.
The Wolverines trailed by one, a deficit that would only grow three-and-a-half minutes after Morrison’s goal.
Again, a shot came from the right face-off circle. This time it was off the stick of Fighting Irish defenseman Matt Hellickson, who beat Mann over his right shoulder.
Trailing by two goals and faced with a ticking clock, the Wolverines’ offense struggled to find answers. The inability to score wasn’t the problem, it was the result of a series of smaller issues. They weren’t going hard to the net. They lacked a sense of urgency. In 50/50 battles, more often than not, Michigan didn’t come away with possession of the puck.
“They just play such a simple, grindy game,” senior forward Jake Slaker said. “I can’t say that we didn’t have our opportunities, we had more opportunities than them tonight, but we just didn’t bury.”
Of the Wolverines’ total 35 shots, only one found the back of the net. When it did, it was too late for a full comeback. It just lessened the deficit. It kept them from being shutout for a second time this season.
The goal came with just 42 seconds remaining. Pearson pulled Mann to add an extra attacker and try to generate something. When the puck came to him, graduate transfer Jacob Hayhurst stickhandled then rifled a shot past Notre Dame’s Cale Morris.
Though his goal pulled Michigan within one, it ultimately didn’t matter. It had waited too long to score, and couldn’t muster a tying one in the dying seconds.
A win Friday night for the Wolverines could’ve boosted them from third to second in the Big Ten. It could’ve continued the momentum they’ve been building the entire second half of this season.
Instead, a loss puts the Wolverines back on their heels with just three games left.
“We have to understand that this is how it’s going to be,” Pearson said. “It’s not going to be easier tomorrow. It’s going to be tougher tomorrow. We’ve got the get that in our heads. We’ll have to really play hard without the puck and when we have it we’re going to have to play smarter than we did tonight.”
First place in the conference is now out of reach, but home ice in the Big Ten Tournament is still a possibility. On Saturday night, Michigan will have to fight harder if it wants to keep hopes of home ice alive. It’ll have to do all the little things right. It’ll have to prove this game wasn’t the start of a downturn, but just a game where too many mistakes were made.
But doing that isn’t so simple.
Before Friday night, the Wolverines hadn’t lost the first game in a weekend series since they played Wisconsin on Nov. 30. So whether they’ll be able to rebound is a serious question. They’re being tested, and how they answer will likely determine the fate of their season.
“It’s like two kids getting in the sandbox and there’s one toy,” Pearson said. “You’re either going to get the toy, or I’m going to get the toy. Someone’s going crying home to their mother because they didn’t get the toy. We gotta make sure we jump in that sandbox and let them know, it’s our toy, and we’re going to get it.”