As senior right wing Will Lockwood glided around the right circle at the 3:30 mark of the second period, there was a moment, albeit a brief one, where there was nothing but clear ice between he and his second goal of the game.
Lockwood sized up the puck and hesitated, but by the time he was ready to shoot, the Catamounts had already taken possession. Once again, Vermont had pulled the rug out from under the No. 4 Michigan hockey team.
In the Wolverines’ season-opening 5-2 loss against the Catamounts, they found themselves constantly trying to fight back from Vermont’s sucker punches. Right away, Michigan couldn’t establish itself on offense; for the most part the Catamounts closed off all the passing lanes in the middle of the ice for the Wolverines, forcing Michigan to bring up its backline to kickstart an offensive flow.
“We wanted to play fast,” said senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi. “Our team is fast, we want to move the puck fast, and in the first period, we were moving a little slow, not physical. Coach [Pearson] came in the locker room and asked us to move the puck quicker and take more shots.”
Just like that Vermont, made them pay — twice. Four minutes into the game, the Wolverines faced a 2-0 deficit, off two goals — one of them on a powerplay — from Catamounts forward Alex Esposito. Four minutes into the season, Michigan was in trouble against a team that went 10-20-7 last year.
“We weren’t ready to play tonight,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “I think we came in here with the mindset that it was going to be easy, and that we’d score ten goals on them.”
As one does when punched in the mouth, though, the Wolverines punched back as hard as they could. Five minutes later, Michigan earned a power play of its own. Using their newfound open ice, the Wolverines finally found some room to breathe, whirring the puck around to the top of the right circle to a calm and waiting Lockwood. As Lockwood prepared his slapshot, sophomore left wing Michael Pastujov screened off Vermont goaltender Stefanos Lekkas, rendering Lockwood’s shot-— and goal — effectively invisible to Lekkos. Just 58 seconds later, junior left wing Jake Slaker careened a shot gloveside, and junior defenseman Nick Pastujov flicked it in.
“I think we need to be a lot better at getting the puck from our defensive zone into the offensive zone,” Nick Pastujov said. “As you can see, once you spend a lot of time down there that’s when you get five or six shots in a shift.”
Vermont, though, pulled the same trick that the Wolverines did at the end of the period, using a screener to clear the way for a goal by forward Max Kaufman. Michigan outshot the Catamounts through the first period and the second period, but the Wolverines constantly fumbled passes and fell back into the same disjointed offense that plagued them at the start of the game.
This time, Michigan didn’t claw back. With three minutes remaining in the final period, Vermont put the game away for good on a close-range shot by left wing Martin Frechette and rubbed in the wound with another goal with 18 seconds left in regulation.
For all of the Wolverines’ sky-high expectations and hopes coming into the season, the Catamounts hit them with a dose of reality. Time will tell if Michigan can come up with the response that it couldn’t find today.