COLUMBUS — If there has been one thing an inconsistent Michigan hockey team has been consistent at, it is a tendency to give up backbreaking goals at an alarming rate. And in the first period of Friday’s contest at No. 12 Ohio State, the Wolverines reached a new low en route to a 4-2 loss.
The Buckeyes — who boast the nation’s best power play — had torched Michigan (2-11-2 Big Ten, 9-17-3 overall) for seven power-play goals in the first series between the two teams, and with 1:40 left in the first period, a Wolverine mishap gave Ohio State (8-6-1, 17-8-6) an extra-man advantage. While Michigan was initially unfazed, disrupting the Buckeye attack thanks to inspired efforts from senior forward Max Shuart and freshman forward Jake Slaker, things unraveled quickly.
Ohio State raced back down into the Michigan defensive zone, attacking freshman goaltender Jack LaFontaine. The Wolverines tried desperately to clear the puck, and at one point, it seemed they would escape into the first intermission with a 1-0 lead fully intact.
But as the buzzer sounded, Buckeye forward David Gust pushed the puck past LaFontaine, leaving Michigan stunned. LaFontaine could not believe it. His teammates could not, either, with a couple hunched over, hands on their knees.
When the officials confirmed the goal, the Wolverines skated off slowly into the locker room, only to be called back to play out a meaningless second that had been added back onto the clock. The two teams met at center ice for a mere formality, the buzzer sounded once again and then the visitors were free to skate off, left to wonder what had just happened.
And in a way — at this point in the season — these games are close to as meaningless as that one fateful second. Michigan has suffered through its worst season in three decades, bitten by both the injury bug and an inability to put together 60 minutes of cohesive, coherent hockey.
There was something surreal about Friday night’s game at Value City Arena, replete with stage theatrics — ranging from fog to confetti — meant to thrill a crowd far from capacity. Ohio State, still in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid, faced off against the Wolverines, a team that has resigned itself to playing out the stretch of games preluding the Big Ten Tournament — its last hope for a postseason bid.
“You need a big win,” said senior forward Alex Kile. “It could be tomorrow night, it could be against Minnesota or Penn State. You need one good team win and get some confidence going, get some swagger going. All you need is three wins in the Big Ten Tournament. I’ve seen it happen — a fifth or sixth seed makes it all the way to the finals. That’s what we’re banking on.”
That isn’t to say Michigan phoned it in Friday — the Wolverines chased after loose pucks and blocked shots all night. Senior forward Evan Allen, in the midst of a late career renaissance, rifled in two goals to keep his team in it. His second, off a beautiful feed from freshman forward Adam Winborg, was the culmination of a perfectly-executed power play and cut the home team’s lead to one late in the second period.
But Ohio State forward Nick Schilkey plunged a dagger into Michigan just a few minutes later, scoring yet another late period goal against the Wolverines when his shot beat LaFontaine with just 6.5 seconds left.
“These are the worst two last minute goals I can think of,” Berenson said. “I thought we had a chance that one didn’t count, but it did. … We had six seconds left in the second one. Those are tough goals on a team.”
Added Allen: “We’ve been battling with goals-against with under 10, 15 seconds left for the past however many months. It’s pretty frustrating. We bear down on both those penalty kills and it’s a completely different game.”
The effort was there. But that doesn’t make it any less jarring to witness a once-mighty program humbled like it very rarely has been during the Red Berenson era.
Gust’s last-second goal was not just demoralizing in the context of Friday’s game, though it did appear to put Michigan in a temporary funk as the Wolverines gave up two more unanswered goals after. The goal, and the loss, just happened to be particularly brutal given the scope of this year — a season that will be condemned to history. It’s a season that most fans will try their hardest to forget. But, on the other hand, it’s a season that will be burned into the players’ memories, as they work toward building a future with fewer late period goals and fewer meaningless late season games.