Johnny Beecher’s body language said it all.
The freshman forward had a breakaway with senior forward Jake Slaker running the ice on the opposite side of the neutral zone in the first period. But Beecher swung the pass too early and Slaker crossed the blue line with the puck while Beecher was already in the offensive zone, causing an offsides call.
It was just one wasted chance in a game of many — ultimately leading to a 3-1 loss for the Wolverines (3-5-2, 0-3-1-0) against the Golden Gophers (4-4-1 overall, 1-1-2-2 Big Ten).
But the frustration of wasting such perfect opportunity was too much for Beecher in the moment. He swung his head back and stared at the silver panels on the ceiling of Yost.
As Beecher claimed his place on the bench, Slaker sat next to him and patted the freshman’s hanging head. It was early in the game. Opportunities were a dime a dozen, and there would be plenty more chances to score. But as the period dwindled and the remaining periods dawned onward, those chances came. The much-needed goals themselves, however, would not.
“If you look at the last four periods, we played pretty well,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “And you have not much to show for it. You can’t fault the effort. You can’t fault the opportunities we got. They created.”
And by the end of the game, after an empty-net goal by Minnesota forward Sammy Walker put a win out of reach, there was no veteran player, no alternate captain or reliable presence to calm the mounting frustration.
As the horn sounded, Beecher slammed his stick against the ice. Slaker slammed his stick against the empty net. It broke in two, much like the spirits of the remaining Michigan players.
“We’re not getting those bounces,” said senior defenseman Luke Martin. “A lot of posts, a lot of weird plays around their net and ours. It’s hard not to get frustrated.”
All game, the Wolverines created high-danger opportunities — ones where a simple tap in from a rebound or another step before the extra pass would have been the difference between the offense getting shut down and dominating a toss-up matchup.
Michigan outshot Minnesota in the first period, tied it in the second period, and again, outshot it in the third, totaling 39 shots on net. The players were getting good looks. They were finding the open man. They just couldn’t take advantage of it.
“It’s frustrating for us watching as coaches,” Pearson said. “I know that. All you can do is put yourself in a position to get good scoring opportunities and take your chances.”
Even on the penalty kill, such as in the first period, the Wolverines stemmed the tides and turned a disadvantage into a Grade-A scoring chance when Eric Ciccolini returned to five-on-five play.
While the Gophers were focused on attacking on the power play, Ciccolini hopped out the box and broke away for an uncontested confrontation with the Minnesota goaltender when the power play ended. He dangled the puck here and there, but in the end, couldn’t convert.
The scoring drought was only amplified by the fact that, while it was seemingly outplaying the Gophers the entire night, Michigan was down by at least a goal for the majority of the game.
Slammed sticks, constant head shaking and visibly frustrated Wolverine players offered a good explanation of what occurred.
The first goal of the game went against Michigan and was scored from a drive by Minnesota forward Ben Meyers. He took a shot but it was blocked by freshman defenseman Cam York, who sprawled on the ice to prevent the shot or pass. The puck leaked away from the net, but redshirt junior forward Luke Morgan, who had also instinctively laid out on the ice, accidentally kicked the puck toward the net and to a waiting Gopher, unguarded and ready. Brannon McManus tapped the puck in for an easy redirect goal.
And the second goal was one unlike anything Pearson had seen in his 30 years at Michigan. On a dump-in, the puck hit the boards but bounced off in an awkward fashion. Strauss Mann had been waiting behind the net for the puck to curl around as it normally does. But the puck instead bounced in front of the net — an empty net — and allowed for an easy scoring opportunity for the Gophers.
The third period saw an offensive-zone dominance by the Wolverines. Nineteen shots on net, and midway through the period, one finally found its intended target, a much-needed break.
Beecher corralled the puck off the boards and cut around the net. He created separation between and the pursuing defenders and surveyed the ice. A quick pass to an open Emil Ohrwall resulted the Wolverines’ first and only goal of the night.
The barrage of attacks that followed, and the pressure created, would be ruled meaningless as an empty-net goal in the dying seconds of the game ended any chances of a comeback and the words of Pearson and the players after the game rang clear.
“We’re doing so many things well right now,” Martin said. “And just have to keep our focus on those and trying to — because the tide’s gonna turn. The floodgates are gonna open.”
Added Pearson: “The offense will come.”
The shared sentiment was that as long as they continue to play defense the way they did, the goals will come — and presumably, the wins will as well.
But on Saturday, neither did.