Staying focused in a competition that has no stakes is often difficult. It’s hard to hold yourself accountable from start to finish when you know there will be no repercussions.
And Saturday night at Yost Ice Arena, that seemed to be a key factor as a previously red-hot Michigan hockey team fell, 4-1, in an exhibition against the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP) U18 team.
“I think from start to finish we didn’t play how we need to,” freshman forward Johnny Beecher said. “We came out pretty slow, I don’t think the guys were into the game as much as we needed to be. To be honest, it looked like we did two months ago. It’s unacceptable, we need a good week of practice this week to get ready for Ohio State.”
It was a game in which both sides played effortlessly. Only that one side made things look easy while the other didn’t fully commit. The contest counted for points in the USHL — the league the NTDP plays in — while it meant nothing to the Wolverines. For Michigan, that turned out to be a recipe for disaster.
That disparity in motivation is something volunteer assistant coach Matt Hunwick can relate to. Hunwick played for the NTDP and before a four-year playing career at Michigan, so he has been on both sides of an affair like tonight. Such a track record forms a unique perspective.
“As a player at USA, you are so excited to play in that game against Michigan, against any college team really,” Hunwick said. “And then you get to Michigan, that’s a little bit different because you’ve already done it. You’re on the other side. Maybe the juice isn’t quite as much as it would be for the USA kids, but you can see how much scale and speed, and how hard they played.”
The NTDP got called for interference less than three minutes into the game, giving the Wolverines’ power play an opportunity to display the growth it has made throughout this season. But instead, quite the opposite happened for Michigan (10-11-3 overall).
Soon after the ensuing faceoff, freshman defenseman Cam York lost possession in the offensive zone, and that turnover proved to be deadly. Forward Thomas Bordeleau immediately skated diagonally across the ice, while forward Landon Slaggert joined the rush.
Sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg tried to stop the two-on-one, but came up short. At the last second, Bordeleau sent the puck to Slaggert who then sent it through sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann from the right side for the first goal of the night. Such a play was uncharacteristic of the defense, which has yet to give up a shorthanded goal in a normal game. The remainder of that opening power play was unsuccessful for the Wolverines.
“They were ready to play and we weren’t,” senior forward Nick Pastujov said. “I think that was apparent from the start. Giving up a shorthanded goal and then just the flow of the game, we obviously weren’t as invested and they were. Showed up in the score.”
Michigan’s defense struggled to steal the puck early on. The NTDP maintained possession well in the opening period and moved it around quickly. The effort did damage to the Wolverines.
“Their team’s good,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Credit to them, they worked hard, they played hard. I saw them Monday, they were really good. So much so that my wife said, ‘They pass the puck a lot better than your team,’ and they did tonight for the most part. Good team.
“Good lesson for our team. Real good lesson on preparation and how you can never underestimate or take a night off unless you want to get beat. Doesn’t matter who you play.”
Midway through the first period, forward Ty Smilanic dove near the boards to pass the puck to defenseman Tyler Kleven who then took a shot from the blue line. Forward Hunter Strand got into the crease to help channel the puck into the net, and thus Michigan found itself down two goals early.
For the second frame, senior goaltender Hayden Lavigne entered the game in place of Mann. Just like in the first period, the Wolverines got another power play in the opening minutes of the second. This time, Michigan made better use of the man advantage than the first attempt and actually created scoring opportunities. Regardless, the offense came up empty handed once again.
For Pearson, the lackluster performance was emblematic of a poor week of preparation.
“We didn’t lose this game,” Pearson said. “We lost starting Monday. We were not very good in practice all week, so bad to the point I told them to stay away from the rink on Friday, so we didn’t practice yesterday. We were just mentally, physically — not everybody, but a majority of the guys, you could tell — you have a feel in practice of the intensity, the attention to detail, the focus, the work ethic, the compete, the execution, we were sloppy.”
One of the Wolverines’ key scoring chances of the game came while the second period was still fresh. The puck had been jammed up near the NTDP’s goal post but Michigan ultimately got the better angle, and soon after, redshirt sophomore forward Emil Öhrwall found the puck at the crease with nobody between him and goaltender Drew Commesso. Öhrwall immediately took the shot, but Commesso moved just in time to prevent the buzzer from sounding.
With just over nine minutes to go in the game, the NTDP regained possession of the puck in their defensive zone and went rushing down the ice. Soon, forward Luke Tuch rifled the puck past Lavigne. And in the final few minutes of the game, the Wolverines deficit widened when forward Smilanic found the back of the net one final time for his side.
In the last sixty seconds, Beecher fired a shot from the slot to finally get his team on the board. But it was too little, too late, and nobody needs to explain that to the freshman.
“I think this was a wake up call,” Beecher said of the loss. “Like coach said in the locker room, we almost needed this. It was a little slap in the face to us, nobody wants to go out and get beat by high school kids. We know that what we just did was wrong, and I’m sure the guys will be battling all week and trying to get better.”