MADISON — When senior forward Jake Slaker received the puck from graduate student Jacob Hayhurst he had a decision to make.
He could pass or shoot.
His shooting angle wasn’t ideal, but the passing options weren’t either. Back at the blueline, sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg waited for the pass back, Slaker’s safe choice.
On the other side of the ice, freshman defenseman Cam York pushed toward the net. Slaker looked up and decided to pass. The puck slid through traffic — and was almost intercepted by a Wisconsin defenseman — to York. He lifted his right leg and rifled a quick shot. Seconds later York’s teammates embraced him and celebrated.
Just like that, Michigan (4-9-2 overall, 0-6-1-0 Big Ten) had nabbed an early first period lead against No. 19 Wisconsin (7-7-1, 2-4-1-1).
But when time expired, the early lead the Wolverines had built and then extended was gone, as they fell 3–2, to the Badgers on Saturday night.
“It was just one of those nights where,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson, “again, we’ve been seeing this pretty much every game. These one-goal losses are starting to add up on us. We’re finding a way to, not necessarily lose the game, but in the way of goals, just a shot at the net goes off our defensemen’s foot and into the net. That’s sort of the story of our season right now.”
When the puck dropped and the third period began, the Wolverines looked refreshed. Coming off a second period where it surrendered a two-goal lead, Michigan seemed to finally be responding to Wisconsin’s upped intensity.
And it was working. The Wolverines were outshooting and outplaying the Badgers. But then it happened. The kind of goal that has been Michigan’s kryptonite all season long — an awkward bounce. A third unanswered goal, this one decisive.
Wisconsin defender K’Andre Miller received a pass along the boards from his teammate at the blue line. He cut in towards the net and threw a pass across the top of the crease to another Badger streaking towards the net.
Before the puck could reach his teammate, it met the skate of freshman defenseman Keaton Pherson. The pass ricocheted off his skate and into the back of the goal.
Sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann looked over his shoulder at the puck sitting in the net while Wisconsin celebrated behind him.
With just seven minutes remaining, Michigan trailed — for the first time all game — 3-2.
“I didn’t like the goals on Strauss,” Pearson said. “He made some big saves, but it’s the goals you’re giving up. He’s got to find a way to win games for us. He’s playing well, but you’ve got to find a way to win games.”
While the late goal by Miller sealed the Wolverines’ fate, it was their effort in the second period that doomed them.
Riding the momentum of York’s power play goal, Michigan looked to add to its one-goal lead when it earned a man advantage midway through the second period.
Eleven seconds later, Blankenburg was skating all alone at the blueline. When Slaker fed him the puck, he fired a one-timer towards the net and senior forward Will Lockwood tipped the shot in behind the Badgers’ goaltender. The Wolverines’ lead had been extended.
“I think Blankenburg did a great job just shooting the puck today,” Lockwood said. “Earlier in the year, he would’ve shied away from that (shot). But he’s got a lot of confidence right now, and he’s got a great shot.”
The excitement over Blankenburg’s goal quickly faded when just four minutes later, Wisconsin cut Michigan’s lead to one.
Badger forward Linus Weissbach received a pass as he was skating across the blueline. He carried the puck into the zone and when he reached the top of the faceoff circle, he moved in towards Mann.
Then, Weissbach slid the puck across to teammate Dylan Holloway.
A flick of Holloway’s stick later, and his shot had Mann beat.
“We got a little scrabbly there,” Pearson said. “You have to remember that when you give up a goal, the other team gets the energy and the fire under them. They did and they came after us for a while.”
But the Badger’s offensive push continued beyond Holloway’s goal.
With just under two minutes remaining in the second period, the Wolverines were in desperate need of a line change.
That’s when Wisconsin defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk skated the puck across the blueline. He was faced with the tired skaters, and beat the first two he encountered. Then, he fired a shot at the goal — and connected with twine.
Michigan’s two-goal lead had vanished, and the game was tied.
While the Wolverines tried to rally in the third period, they couldn’t get the puck in the net when they needed to the most.
“It’s tough,” Lockwood said. “It’s the same story, different day.”