DETROIT — The danger zone.
It’s what Michigan coach Mel Pearson calls the area on the ice between the two faceoff circles and the blue line in his team’s defensive zone. Tuesday night, the Wolverines showed why that nickname fits.
The Wolverines’ inability to clear the puck from the “danger zone” resulted in Michigan Tech scoring two goals. The second goal resulting from this type of error cost them the game.
With under five minutes remaining, sophomore defender Nick Blankenburg struggled to control the puck. Huskies forward Logan Pietila pressured him, and Blankenburg failed to get the puck across the blue line and out of the zone.
Instead, it ended up on Pietila’s stick and, for the third time Tuesday night, he shot the puck around the outstretched glove of sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann. The Wolverines trailed 3-2, and the team that dominated for the first 40 minutes of the game had wilted.
Ultimately, the Wolverines (7-11-2) couldn’t recover from errors like bad clears and fell 4-2, to Michigan Tech (12-8-1) in the Great Lakes Invitational championship.
“It’s a game of mistakes,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “You make one or two mistakes, and they capitalize on them, and our night’s over.”
Before the third period, the Wolverines controlled the game. Between the first two periods they tallied 30 shots on goal — 20 in the first period alone. But Michigan didn’t connect with the back of the net until five minutes into the second period.
Senior forward Nick Pastujov broke gave the Wolverines the 1-0 lead when he tucked the puck in the space between the outstretched pad and catcher of Jurusik from the side of the net. Pastujov’s face flooded with relief. Michigan’s offense had managed to produce.
“You can see it tonight, we had some great chances tonight to get some separation,” Pearson said. “You look at our goals for, and that’s hard. But it’s good to see Lockwood and Slaker, and now Nick (Pastujov) scoring.”
No more than five minutes later, the Huskies answered Pastujov’s goal on a power play opportunity. The puck found Pietila’s stick. Mann attempted a sliding glove save, but he was too late. Pietila had already beat him. The game was tied at one.
But the Wolverines mustered a response.
Eight minutes after the Huskies score the equalizer, junior forward Jack Becker stood along the boards in front of the bench.
He tapped his stick on the ice, signaling to teammate Jake Slaker he wanted the puck. The senior forward passed to Becker who then entered the offensive zone.
Becker was then met by Michigan Tech defender Tyler Rockwell. Becker rifled a shot but Rockwell slid an outstretched skate right into the path of the puck.
A second later, the puck was back on Becker’s stick. This time, he didn’t hesitate and sent the puck just under the outstretched glove of the Huskies’ goaltender, senior Matt Jurusik.
Becker skated behind the net and opened his arms in celebration — Michigan led, 2-1.
But when the puck dropped to signal the start of the third period, the Wolverines seemed different. The offensive urgency was lessened, and the momentum swung towards Michigan Tech.
And just 90 seconds into the third period, the Wolverines’ lead vanished. Pietila skated across the blue line, but no Michigan player stepped up to defend him. He fired a shot from “the danger zone” and beat Mann to tie the game, 2-2.
“There’s a reason we call that the danger zone,” Pearson said. “Because when you turn it over there bad things can happen, and it did tonight.
Michigan never regained momentum after the early third period goal from Pietila. Its offense from the first two periods was nowhere to be found. And the chances the Wolverines did get, they failed to capitalize on.
Pearson pulled Mann with three minutes remaining and looking to provide a boost to his team’s offense. It was too late though. With eight seconds remaining, Michigan Tech forward Alec Broetzman finished the puck into the empty net to make the game 4-2, and the Wolverines’ chance at a comeback was gone.
Through the first half of the season, Michigan has been plagued by the inability to finish scoring opportunities. Tuesday night, its offense was only half the problem, the other half was its costly mistakes in the defensive zone.
“You’ve gotta finish your opportunity when you get the opportunity,” Pearson said. “You gotta manage the puck, and that got away from us a little bit in the third.”