COLUMBUS — Barring unforeseen circumstances, the No. 11 Michigan hockey team has punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
The berth comes despite a 3-2 overtime loss to No. 6 Ohio State in Saturday’s Big Ten Tournament semifinals. The Wolverines (20-14-3) fell just three spots to No. 10 in the PairWise rankings, still safely within the top 16 teams to receive at-large bids to the postseason tournament.
A victory in Columbus would’ve added to Michigan’s seven-game winning streak and a chance at the conference title. It also would have elevated the team’s pride for defeating its rival after bowing in all four regular-season showdowns.
The first single-elimination loss of the season sent the Wolverines home for an idle week before learning about their tournament fate. But Michigan experienced the perfect precursor to playoff hockey against a Buckeyes team (24-8-5) with the nation’s fourth-best offense and power play and college hockey’s best penalty kill.
Now, Michigan coach Mel Pearson’s squad has time to iron out the kinks.
“I’ve liked the growth of our team,” he said after the game. “If we’re fortunate to get into that (NCAA) Tournament, this is a good warmup for that because you won’t find many teams better than Ohio State.
“We’re not happy about the outcome, but we’re happy with some of the things we did in the game. Things to build on and improve on.”
First, the positives.
Outscored 15-6 in the first four duels against the Buckeyes, the Wolverines were one shot away from tying — or upsetting — the host team. The first two Ohio State goals were answered by Michigan, both off the stick of junior forward Cooper Marody.
After allowing a power play goal late in the first period, the Wolverines responded halfway through the second to momentarily silence Nationwide Arena. They maintained pressure in the zone with three shots on net in a minute, before a loose rebound batted around in the crease. Finding the puck in front of him, Marody grabbed it in the air, placed it at his feet and, while falling, flipped a wobbler past Buckeye goaltender Sean Romero to tie the game at one apiece.
Early in the third frame, Ohio State would regain the one-goal lead — again on the man advantage — when a shot from the point was redirected off three skaters and crept past sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne.
But Marody was back at it again just three minutes later. Seven seconds into a Wolverines’ power play, he produced another highlight goal. Entering the slot, his body spun toward the goal, and he ripped the puck past Romero’s left pad for the equalizer with 12:33 remaining.
Despite generating both goals, Marody instead credited his teammates.
“That was just showing how great (freshman defenseman) Quinn Hughes is,” Marody said. “He was weaving inside, outside and all over the zone. We had (senior forwards Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone) working really hard, and I just tried to bang it in. It shows you how good my linemates are.”
Hughes also added three shots, two assists and two clean looks at the net that blitzed Romero, but both were stopped by the post. The youngest player in college hockey evaded defenders with wizardly stickhandling to establish quality scoring chances.
But there were also negatives.
It started with untimely and avoidable penalties. Four shorthanded sequences against a destructive power play spelled disaster for Michigan’s penalty kill, the nation’s fourth-worst with just a 75.34 percent success rate. After outplaying Ohio State at even strength, the Buckeyes would convert on two of four man advantages.
Pearson also cited faceoffs as an area to be stressed in preparation for the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes won a lopsided 35 draws to the Wolverines’ 22.
“That’s just an indication of the urgency and the desperation, and the will and the want and the intensity,” Pearson said. “We’ve got to be better there.”
With 16 players on the Wolverine roster without NCAA Tournament experience, Pearson is hyper-focused on injecting an extreme desire to fend elimination.
“You have to make sure you’re absolutely ready, do everything in your power to be ready to play,” Pearson said. “I’ve been through it for 22 years at Michigan, and I’ve been through a couple of last years in other schools so I get it, I’ve seen it and I think I’ve got a good idea of what it takes to prepare. But our players, you can’t give them that experience.”
Going into Saturday night’s contest, Pearson told his skaters they weren’t attending a ballet, but instead a boxing match.
The same mantra applies to the rest of the postseason.
During the second half of the season, Michigan went 7-0-1 in its last eight entering Saturday and 8-3-1-1 to end the conference season. It gracefully leapt from win to win down the stretch — save three losses to Ohio State and one to Wisconsin — but is resolute to exchange slippers for boxing gloves to stand a chance in the ring against hockey’s best teams ahead.
No matter its status as one of the hottest teams, Michigan learned Saturday night that one loss in a single-elimination scenario brings the end to its come-from-behind, storybook season. And Pearson knows it.
“The next time we won’t get a next time,” he said. “You can call that pressure or you can call it opportunity, but you can’t hide from it.”