Seconds into the Michigan hockey team’s Big Ten Championship game at Minnesota, the Golden Gophers secured the puck in their defensive zone. Defenseman Jackson Lacombe thrashed it from behind his blue line and through a gap in the Wolverines’ defense line. One-on-one with sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo, forward Jaxon Nelson settled the puck and buried it in the net.
Only 30 seconds into its biggest game of the season, Michigan was caught off guard.
The Wolverines were already down a goal before some fans even got to their seats last Saturday night. The early goal was a shaky start, and Michigan wasn’t playing its game. The Wolverines’ quick-response goal was necessary to keep their trophy lifting hopes alive.
“We believe in ourselves no matter what,” freshman forward Dylan Duke said. “If things aren’t going our way we’ll calm it down on the bench and get back to our game. We’ll always believe in ourselves.”
Michigan was able to bounce back against a tough opponent in Minnesota to win the conference title. Yet, sophomore defenseman Owen Power and junior defensemen Keaton Pehrson displayed a worrisome lack of defensive structure. Whacking at Nelson’s stick from behind, the pair lagged a whole stride from the attacker. Portillo couldn’t fend off the early attack as the puck rebounded off the netting and trickled in front of him.
The Wolverines’ strong mentality had to make up for such an early mistake. It was clear that everyone was behind each other.
“I trust my teammates’ ability to score goals,” Portillo said. “I know how good they are and I wasn’t really worried at all. We as a team are good enough to come back from that, and we did.”
Michigan’s first opponent in the NCAA Tournament, American International, is ranked No. 18 — significantly lower than No. 4 Minnesota, which held the No. 2 prior to Saturday night. If the Wolverines are scored on early, they’ve proven that they can bounce back. The early goal was overshadowed by sophomore forward Brendan Brisson’s tying goal and the fire it lit within his team. But Michigan may not be able to rely on its offensive abilities forever.
The Wolverines showed defensive issues in their 6-1 loss to Ohio State in December. Michigan struggled with discipline, and gave up a penalty in the opening minute. The Buckeyes used it to their advantage, scoring a minute later. The Wolverines ultimately weren’t able to come back from it.
“They jumped out to an early lead,” senior forward Jimmy Lambert said after the loss to the Buckeyes. “We couldn’t come back from it … our discipline was not good enough.”
In the Wolverines’ second series game against Wisconsin in October, penalties weren’t a problem, but the Badgers still earned the early lead in the third minute. They used that momentum to score again in the second period and add two more in the third. Michigan collected two goals in the third period, but couldn’t scramble up a Brisson-style response goal in the first.
Brisson saved Michigan from the early error against the Golden Gophers. Yet the Wolverines have displayed throughout the season that early blunders could have a lasting effect on the game’s outcome. Defensive mistakes, especially like the one on Saturday, could abruptly end Michigan’s postseason run.
So if the Wolverines want a National Championship, they can’t afford many more lapses.