What a difference a day can make.
On Saturday, No. 7 Michigan (14-9-1 overall, 11-9 Big Ten) looked lackluster, ultimately falling to No. 3 Minnesota (20-6, 16-6), 4-2.
On Friday, the Wolverines defied expectations with a gritty, 5-2 win over the Golden Gophers, painting a completely different picture.
Michigan’s offense started slow on Saturday afternoon, taking just two shots in the first 10 minutes of the game.
Minnesota committed two holding penalties in the first period, but the Wolverines’ power play was no match for the Big Ten’s best penalty kill unit. Michigan couldn’t generate any offense on either opportunity, barely able to bring the puck past the blue line, let alone in front of the goal.
The Gopher’s penalty kill stymied the Wolverines all afternoon and they failed to convert on three-man advantages. Sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg thought performance on special teams was the biggest difference between the two games.
It turns out what the Wolverines really needed was a threat. With 3:35 minutes left in the period, Gopher forward Bryce Brodzinski was just that. He found space on the left side of Michigan’s crease, taking a shot that ricocheted off the top crossbar passed junior goaltender Strauss Mann to put Minnesota up, 1-0.
Blankenburg evened the score with an almost-identical goal less than a minute later.
Unlike Friday’s match-up, the Wolverines stayed neck-and-neck with Minnesota on the shot total through the second period. Part of that came from Michigan’s strong defensive effort. On Friday, Mann looked like the Wolverines’ only line of defense, making 28 saves before the night finished. In the first two periods of Saturday’s game, Michigan’s defensemen did a better job deflecting shots in front of the crease.
Still, they were far from perfect. On a power play midway through the second period, Minnesota forward Scott Reedy fired off a shot from the left circle, the puck sailing past Mann to put Minnesota up by one for the second time.
Michigan continued to dig its own grave at the start of the third period when it handed the Gophers another man advantage. Just as the Wolverines returned to full strength, Minnesota found the back of the net again with a one-timer from the right circle that snuck just between Mann and the right post.
“At the end of the day, there’s gonna be a lot of adversity in these next couple of games,” Blankenburg said. “And we’ve got to find a way to get through that.”
With a well-placed shot from the face-off circle, senior forward Jack Becker cut Minnesota’s lead in half with less than three minutes left in the game. Seconds later, Michigan got the puck back in front of the Gophers’ net, but just when it looked like Michigan would even the score, Minnesota put the final nail in the coffin.
A bounce put the puck back in the hands of a Gophers’ defender who sent it the entire length of the ice. All the Wolverines could do was watch helplessly as it floated into their empty net to again put Minnesota up by two.
An inability to sweep has almost become expected for Michigan. The Wolverines have split six of their 10 series this season. In five out of six of those weekends, they’ve won the first game and dropped the second.
“You come in feeling good about yourself,” assistant coach Kris Mayotte said of winning the first game of a series. “The other team comes in with a refined focus, and they probably had a little more difficult video session and a little bit more commitment. There’s certainly something to it that we need to improve.”
In reality, the differences between Friday and Saturday’s games weren’t earth shattering. On Friday, Mann made some game-defining saves. On Saturday he didn’t. On Friday, Michigan converted on a power play. On Saturday, it didn’t.
On Friday, the Wolverines were a hungry team, desperate to beat one of the best teams in the country. On Saturday, they weren’t.