After Michigan lost its second straight overtime game to Wisconsin on Saturday night, a line of emotional players slowly emerged from the locker room.
At that point, moments after falling short of bringing the first round of the Big Ten Tournament to Yost Ice Arena, the Wolverines were still thinking about what could have been. If Michigan had gotten just two points across the two games — even making it to three-on-three double overtime both nights would’ve been enough — the Wolverines would be hosting the first round of the conference tournament instead of flying to Minnesota this weekend.
Friday night, Michigan evened the score late in the third period before the Badgers won it in overtime. Sudden-death overtime is always a hard way to lose, but the Wolverines still had hope. They just needed to win on Saturday to play at Yost the following weekend.
Michigan led Saturday’s game with just over a minute to play when defenseman Ty Emberson scored to send it to overtime. A would-be Wisconsin goal was called back early in the extra period. It didn’t matter. The Badgers scored on the very next shift, and the once-hopeful Wolverines were sent to the locker room filled with emotion.
“I feel bad for our fans and the Children of Yost and our players because we worked hard and we just didn’t get the break we needed tonight,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson on Saturday. “We worked hard to get that break. You have to earn your breaks, and tonight I thought we played well enough to win. Last night, maybe not so, but still, we were right in the game.”
But even as he was discussing the emotional difficulty of back-to-back overtime losses, Pearson knew that his players didn’t have much time to feel sorry for themselves.
“But when we have home ice on the line and we lose that the way we did this weekend, it’s — we gotta get over it, though,” Pearson said. “We’ve gotta move forward and go on the road and find a way to win games at Minnesota.”
Pearson gave the Wolverines Sunday and Monday off to recover, but he expected them to hit the ground running on Tuesday.
They got two days to think about what could’ve been, and then it was time to refocus.
“I think it’s just one of those things where you really don’t have a choice,” said junior forward Nick Pastujov on Tuesday. “We don’t have any time at all to feel bad for ourselves or wonder what we maybe could’ve done differently.”
The Wolverines have just two days of practice before they leave for Minnesota. Their focus has flipped from getting home-ice advantage to doing whatever they need to keep their season from ending.
“We have one week,” Pastujov said. “Our season could be over this weekend. … You always have (it) in the back of your mind where it gets you to play a little harder, because we don’t want it to be the last weekend playing with these guys. It is a weekend where we have to play as desperate as we have.”
As Pastujov said, Michigan knows it needs to play with desperation this weekend to have a chance to keep their season going. Having to play on the road adds a level of difficulty, but Michigan has already beaten Minnesota at Mariucci Arena once this year.
“If you’ve won in a rink before, you know you can do it,” Pearson said on Tuesday. “It’s a lot different if you haven’t won in that building and you’re trying to win. You’re trying to do something that you’re not sure if you’re capable of. But we’re capable of going in there and beating them, and that should give us the — emotionally, in the right frame of mind.”
Minutes after Saturday’s loss, senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi identified that the Wolverines needed to embrace a “road warriors” mentality in order to have success this weekend against the red-hot Golden Gophers, who are 5-1 over their last six games.
Michigan didn’t expect to have to go on the road this early in the postseason, but anything can happen in the conference tournament. The Wolverines’ goals are still in front of them — just not quite along the route they’d planned.
“At this point, nothing this season matters,” Pastujov said. “We just have to beat Minnesota twice.”