Shooting yourself in the foot is putting it lightly.
It’s easier to say after No. 11 Michigan dropped its matchup against No. 19 Western Michigan, 5-4, that it had shot itself in both.
On Saturday, the Wolverines simply weren’t careful enough. They let the Broncos strike early, and they let them strike hard, which put a lot of pressure on Michigan to respond. And while it did to an extent, the response just wasn’t enough to compensate for the sloppy performances given by the team.
“No question. We were loose with the puck,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “Our puck management in the danger zone in our end was not good, it led directly to three of their goals tonight.”
Less than two minutes into the game, Western Michigan saw its first chance. Freshman goaltender Strauss Mann — while talented — was still inexperienced, having just started his first regulation game. After forcing a turnover in the Wolverines’ defensive zone, the Broncos had an odd-man attack in play, which they executed to perfection.
It was a textbook performance. Two players on both sides of the goaltender to divide his attention. Passes between the two to further the confusion. Though a Michigan player dropped back in time to contest one of the Western Michigan players, it wasn’t enough to allow Mann to commit himself to the other. A quick strike ensued and an early deficit followed.
But Michigan didn’t relent. The aggressive style of play of the Wolverines, often countering a Broncos’ push with one of their own, forced opportunities. Michigan just couldn’t capitalize.
In the first period, Michigan had six power plays. They converted zero of them. Western Michigan simply saw through the schemes, intercepting the passes or blocking the shot before it could even reach Broncos goaltender Austin Cain.
“They blocked a lot of shots tonight,” Pearson said. “They played with some urgency and some desperation and that threw us off a little bit. And that’s how it goes.”
It was only through a four-on-four did Michigan find the answer to the early goal. Sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes scored after a scramble in traffic behind the net pushed the puck towards him, near the blue line. With plenty of room to skate, he pushed forward and hit a straight-away shot in center-ice to tie the game, 1-1.
Discipline looked to be the deciding factor to controlling the first period. While the Wolverines received six penalties, they only committed three. It just happens that Western Michigan converted the one it needed. Bronco Hugh McGing had a clean shot from the center and took the opportunity given from a five-on-three situation to end the first period on a high note.
“We can’t put ourselves five-on-three,” Pearson said. “Like I told the team, both penalties we took to put us on five-on-three were slashing. And it’s not like we were preventing a goal, it was just a lazy penalty. I call those lazy penalties, we have to get those out of our game.”
And the Broncos carried that momentum into the second period. Coming out fast, Western Michigan kept the offensive pressure on. With another turnover in the defensive zone, Michigan just couldn’t recover in time. The two-on-one situation, not unlike the first-period turnover, ended in the same result — bringing the score further in favor of the Broncos, 3-1.
As the period wound down, however, the Wolverines found the success they needed from the facets of the game they had struggled with prior in the match. Senior forward Brandon Warren converted the first power play goal for Michigan and soon after, with blazing speed, sophomore Josh Norris broke down ice and got the lead against two defenders.
With a flick into the five-hole, Norris tied the game at three apiece. It was the hustle and pace control the Wolverines had lacked all game that helped turn the tides in their favor.
And riding the momentum shift was junior center Nick Pastujov, who quickly followed suit scoring, this time off a rebound for Michigan’s first lead.
Scoring three straight, two in quick succession, can allow a team to dictate control of the game. Committing a penalty right before the period ends doesn’t.
The Wolverines wanted to capitalize on the scoring streak late in the second period. But it wasn’t possible with a five-on-three disadvantage to start the third period.
“Unfortunately, to start the third period, we had some momentum, going into the period,” Pearson said. “We gave up that five-on-three within two minutes of the third period. We just did not have a good start. We shot ourselves in the foot.”
If there was any more proof, it came five minutes after Western Michigan scored the equalizer from the five-on-three at the start of the period. In a fast-paced sequence where multiple shots were traded from both sides, Michigan attempted to clear the puck in its defensive zone. Lockwood got the puck and attempted to leave the zone, but lost control just as Bronco Josh Passolt cut from the blue line to the goal.
Watching the puck sail to the top right corner of the goal post, all Mann could do is shake his head defeatedly and slam his stick against the crossbar of the goal.
“Strauss did a good job,” Pearson said. “I thought he kept us in the game at times, I’m sure he’d like that fifth one back a little bit. He made some big saves, made them look easy, and obviously the five-on-threes were tough, he didn’t have a chance at those.”
It wasn’t Mann’s play that determined the game for Michigan. The Wolverines went one for 11 on the power play, notched three turnovers in the defensive zone that resulted in goals and had two five-on-three situations, both in crucial moments. It couldn’t be more clear that while they lost to Western Michigan, they also lost to themselves.