Against the No. 2 team in the nation, the No. 3 Michigan hockey team’s attrition was apparent.
It dressed third-string freshman goaltender Tyler Shea at left wing, could not field a fourth line center and had five starters missing.
In the wake of an ailment sweeping the Wolverines, a skeleton crew donned the ice on Friday.
As expected, Michigan (9-4-0 overall, 2-3-0 Big Ten) was unable to summit a mountain of adversity, falling to Minnesota (9-3-1, 5-2), 5-2, in a matchup marred by the absence of several players due to illness.
“It’s been an extremely emotional week,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “We didn’t talk about hockey too much this week. It’s been nothing but worrying and thinking about our teammates and their mental health and their physical health. We got a great group of kids and guys are still fighting.”
From the opening gate, the ghosts of Michigan’s illnesses proved haunting. The Wolverines sported a starting line that Naurato altered after only one shift — a testament to the skeleton crew enlisted to complete the game.
Faced with the tall task of competing with only three lines, the goal was clear: play it safe.
Six minutes into the first period, Minnesota had Michigan penned in its own defensive zone. Cycling with little resistance, Golden Gopher forward Rhett Pitlick collected the puck above the right circle, ripping it shortside to net Minnesota a 1-0 lead.
And in place of a response, the Wolverines continuously struggled to find their groove, logging their first shot on goal 10 minutes into the first period. Whether out of unease or necessity, their opening conservatism limited their ability to find success.
“It’s been different,” sophomore forward Dylan Duke said. “But we played tonight. We gotta give it our best effort every night. No matter who’s playing, no matter who’s going, I think everyone believes in each other. We think we can win with any lineup that we play with any night.”
In the waning minutes of the first period, Michigan caught a break as Minnesota defenseman Luke Mittelstadt drew a holding penalty — and the Wolverines suddenly saw daylight.
Set up in the offensive zone, freshman defenseman Seamus Casey laced a saucer pass onto the stick of freshman forward Rutger McGroarty, who tapped the puck onto sophomore forward Dylan Duke’s stick for a tic-tac-toe goal that evened the score at 1-1. That goal sent Michigan into the first intermission on a high.
Coming into the second period, the Wolverines maintained their newfound energy, sustaining offensive pressure and settling in on both ends.
But as forward Eric Ciccolini raced in on a penalty-kill breakaway, Golden Gopher forward Logan Cooley cross-checked him into the boards, injuring Ciccolini and receiving a five-minute major in the process.
“I thought it was an extremely dangerous hit,” Naurato said. “We’re already short-manned.”
Despite leveling play at four-on-four, Michigan ceded a goal less than a minute later off of a neat passing play, for Pitlick’s second score of the night.
Searching for a rebuttal back on the powerplay, the Wolverines found a spark of luck. After a shot by freshman defenseman Seamus Casey ricocheted off the side of the net, Duke reverted back to his baseball days, batting the puck in and leveling the score at two.
That momentum was short-lived, however, as it was all Minnesota from there.
On the next rush, forward Jimmy Snuggerud capitalized on a scrum in front of Michigan’s net to put the Golden Gophers up 3-2.
Entering the third period a man down, the Wolverines drew a protocol penalty for arriving to the ice too late, granting Minnesota a 5-on-3 chance that Cooley made short work of for a 4-2 Golden Gopher lead. Pouring it on, Mittelstadt chipped in another to make it 5-2.
Despite its best efforts, Michigan could not surmount the waves of adversity it faced throughout the night. In the absence of their ailing teammates, the Wolverines were thinking about much more than hockey when on the ice.
“Those guys are always in the back of our minds,” Duke said. “Our brothers, our teammates — we love them. We’re always thinking about them. And it’s more we’re playing for them.”
As the third period dwindled to a close, Michigan clearly suffered from the wear and tear of a short roster. Players were visibly exhausted in the final minutes, losing races to pucks and getting out-battled by opponents.
In a battle between the two of the most talented teams in college hockey, only one had the opportunity to show up.