SOUTH BEND — The Michigan hockey team’s bench froze for a moment to process what just happened.
Just 26 minutes of gameplay earlier, it entered the second intermission two goals ahead of No. 4 Minnesota. Its goaltender, junior Strauss Mann, was pitching a shutout, and its offense was playing about as well as it had all season.
But in those ensuing 26 minutes, the Gophers forced overtime. In that overtime, a rebound fell onto the waiting stick of Minnesota forward Sammy Walker.
Walker buried the shot, sealing the Gophers’ (22-6 overall, 18-6 Big Ten) 3-2 victory over the seventh-ranked Wolverines (15-10-1 overall, 12-10 Big Ten). Even after the game, Michigan’s players struggled to diagnose just what had gone wrong in that catastrophic final stretch.
“I think we did pretty well (in the third period), honestly,” junior forward Garrett Van Wyhe said. “I think in the first five minutes, they pushed hard, but I think we had a good push and we responded well. Just getting pucks behind them and getting pucks out is just gonna be ultimately the best way going forward on how to handle a two-goal lead, especially going into the third period like that.”
To an extent, the Wolverines were right to be jarred by the overtime finish, because they’d thoroughly controlled play for most of the game. Especially early on, Minnesota — perhaps not used to playing teams that can match its speed — regularly missed on breakout passes and struggled to get the puck out of the zone.
That sluggishness from the Gophers prompted an interference penalty from forward Blake McLaughlin, ultimately resulting in a goal for Michigan freshman forward Kent Johnson just 12 seconds into the power play.
The Wolverines continued to control the game through the rest of the first and second period, thanks largely to strong play from Mann. When Michigan faced two consecutive power plays late in the first period, Mann stepped up to save seven shots and keep Minnesota off the board. He did the same with the 10 shots he faced in the second.
But Mann couldn’t stay perfect forever.
After Van Wyhe extended the Wolverines’ lead to two in the second period, Mann ceded the shutout four minutes into the third, giving up a five-hole goal on a 2-on-1 from Gophers forward Nathan Burke.
Thus began the collapse.
“We got away from playing our normal defense in the zone,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We just started chasing guys a little bit, and we have to be better there. We have to outnumber the puck carrier and do a better job of that.”
As the desperation set in, Minnesota continued to fire shots at Mann, and Michigan continued to grow more fatigued. Eleven minutes later, Minnesota forward Sampo Ranta fielded a puck that had bounced off the skate of Wolverines’ junior forward Jack Summers and fired it past an unprepared Mann.
Suddenly, a game that felt like a sure Michigan victory at the start of the period was destined for overtime — an overtime where Mann faced seven shots in just six minutes.
Once again, that would be too much to handle.
“A lot of it is mental,” junior defenseman Nick Blankenburg said. “We know what breakout we should be doing, we know our forecheck, we know where we should be. It’s just all mental. Like I said, we’re working hard, but we can work smarter, too.”
Though Michigan’s fate in the NCAA Tournament likely remains the same, a win Monday would have been monumental both for the team’s seeding and its confidence. If it’s any consolation, the Wolverines probably won’t have to play a team as good as Minnesota for at least a round or two. It’s hard to draw conclusions for what that means coming off of a tightly contested overtime bout.
But perhaps that’s the lesson. Even after 26 games, Michigan’s season could really end in any way.
Especially now that it’s only one loss away.
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