If you’ve watched the No. 8 Michigan hockey team this season, you’ve probably felt a sense of dejá vú.
The Wolverines have consistently struggled to close out games, finding themselves in an undesirable pattern of squandering leads in the final period. That’s exactly what happened in Friday’s loss to No. 6 Minnesota. And through two periods in Saturday’s rematch, clutching a 2-1 lead, Michigan was in the same position.
But this time, despite some all-too-familiar third-period blunders, the Wolverines finally finished strong by clinching an extra point in the shootout.
In an aggressive and hard-fought matchup, Michigan (5-5-2 overall, 1-3-2 Big Ten) outlasted the Gophers (5-3-2, 1-2-1) in a 3-2 shootout win, beginning to turn the tides of its overarching struggle to close out games.
“We needed a win after losing three in a row,” Wolverines coach Brandon Naurato said. “I think we played good hockey, never gonna play perfect hockey, but we just haven’t gotten it done. So I think it’s huge for the guys.”
The game counts as a tie in national standings, while giving Michigan two standings points in conference play. Regardless, following a tough stretch of losses and season-long inconsistencies, Naurato put it aptly:
“It’s a win in the locker room right now for sure.”
From the opening faceoff, the Wolverines and Gophers fought for the upper hand, finding themselves neck and neck in an aggressive battle. Despite relatively even competition throughout the first period, Michigan held an ever-so-slight advantage heading into the first intermission.
Scrambling around the net with just about seven minutes left in the period, the Wolverines peppered Minnesota goalkeeper Justen Close with five shots in quick succession before freshman forward Nick Moldenhauer buried the sixth — giving Michigan a 1-0 lead.
Finding themselves in a familiar position through 20 minutes, all eyes were on whether the Wolverines could sustain that advantage.
After successfully killing the first penalty of the game — boosted by some extra energy from the crowd following an appearance by the Michigan football team — the Wolverines couldn’t hang on during their second penalty kill. Minnesota forward Brody Lamb nailed a wrist shot top shelf with just over two minutes left in the second period, knotting the game at 1-1.
However, it wasn’t long before Michigan responded and reclaimed its advantage. Mirroring the Gophers’ goal-scoring play from the opposite end of the ice, the Wolverines capitalized on their first power play opportunity of the night with a wrist shot from sophomore forward Frank Nazar III.
Up 2-1 to start the final period, Michigan was once again in control of its own destiny. The Wolverines needed 20 more minutes of good hockey — just like they’d been playing for the first 40 — to close out the game and get back in the win column.
But the third period still proved insurmountable.
A Michigan power play midway through the third frame offered a chance to extend the lead, but the Wolverines couldn’t capitalize as a strong shot from Nazar sailed high in the final seconds of the advantage.
Their defense momentarily made up for the missed opportunity, propelled by a myriad of blocks — particularly from sophomore defenseman Tyler Duke, who laid out multiple times to deflect the puck out of harm’s way — and confident play from graduate goalkeeper Jake Barczewski.
However, the Gophers broke through with under five minutes left on the clock, tying the game again off a redirect from Minnesota forward Jimmy Snuggerud.
“It was a hard third period there,” Duke said. “It’s hard to go all 20. Obviously, they had a good play there in front, but we just stayed calm on the bench and knew what we had to do and we eventually closed it out in the shootout.”
Both teams failed to score in the waning minutes of the final frame, sending the contest to overtime. Similar to the majority of regulation, possession swung back and forth for the five minutes of overtime — and with both teams still tied at the conclusion, the game headed to a shootout.
The first three shots of the shootout were saved, before sophomore defenseman Seamus Casey broke the ice with a flashy backhanded shot. Barczewski blocked the ensuing Minnesota chance, securing the shootout win for Michigan — and potentially kickstarting a turnaround in late-game performances.
“Obviously we would have liked to have closed that out in regulation and get three points, it is what it is,” Barczewski said. “But this could be a big turning point for our team.
“I think we needed this tonight.”