After grabbing the lead with less than five minutes to go, No. 9 Michigan looked well on its way to a series sweep of Michigan State.
Instead, despite having most of the possession and outshooting the Spartans 14-5 in the third period, two last-minute goals from Michigan State (5-5-2 Overall, 4-5-1 Big Ten) gave them a come from behind victory to stun the Wolverines (6-6, 4-6), 3-2.
“Statistics don’t necessarily win you hockey games,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We weren’t able to dictate the play the last two minutes and that’s disappointing.”
After Michigan’s dominating win the night before, Saturday told a much different story. This game more embodied the characteristics of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry — hard-hitting and closely-contested.
The Wolverines found themselves trailing just a minute into the game after the Spartans came out much more aggressively on offense. They continued to test junior goaltender Strauss Mann throughout the early stages, but he was able to keep it a one goal game.
Eight minutes in, a pair of forwards combined to even things up at one. Sophomore Eric Ciccolini slid a pass towards sophomore Johnny Beecher, who sat wide open in the slot and one-timed the puck into the back of the net.
As the period progressed, the teams appeared to be more evenly matched than the night before. They both boasted double-digit shots on goal and power play opportunities they failed to capitalize on. Late in the first, Michigan was dealt a major blow after sophomore defenseman Keaton Pehrson was ejected for a hit to the head, knocking it down to just five defensemen.
“I thought our five defenseman really gutted it out tonight,” Pearson said. “They got a lot of ice time because of that.”
Michigan began the second period killing off the remainder of the five minute major penalty from Pearson’s hit. The Wolverines survived and started to ratchet up their offense. Michigan had two power play chances of their own and spent a majority of the period in the offensive zone but could not crack Michigan State’s goaltender — and the game remained tied at one as time in the second period expired.
“Some nights they go in, some nights they don’t,” Beecher said. “I thought their goaltending was a little bit stronger tonight and just couldn’t find the back of the net.”
It was a timid start to the third as both teams tried to recapture some offensive rhythm. Four minutes into the period, the Wolverines had their fourth power play of the night and, for the fourth time, they could not cash in.
“We had a couple opportunities but we just didn’t move like we should have,” Pearson said. “We just weren’t as sharp on the power play tonight as we were last night.”
Both teams continued to slug it out, waiting for one moment to change the game. Late in the third, that moment finally came.
Sophomore forward Cam York skated behind the net and put a wraparound attempt on goal. Freshman forward Brendan Brisson came crashing in to bury the rebound and give Michigan a 2-1 lead with less than five minutes to play.
But the celebration was short-lived. With two minutes to go, Michigan State whipped a pass across the ice, where Spartans’ defenseman Cole Krygier was waiting and he beat Mann blocker side to tie things up at two.
Then, with just 37 seconds left on the clock, Michigan State forward Josh Nodler took a low-angle shot that trickled through Mann’s pads and into the back of the net, giving the Spartans a decisive 3-2 advantage.
“We got the lead there and we kind of laid back a little bit,” Beecher said. “We took our foot off the gas and they got a couple lucky bounces.”
The final buzzer sounded moments later and the Wolverines left the ice shell-shocked after the last second defeat. They had been the better team most of the night — but not when it mattered most.