Kris Mayotte’s favorite saying is ‘Bend, but don’t break.’ It’s been parroted around the halls of Yost Ice Arena enough times this season that every time someone says something to that effect, everyone knows where it came from.
But the Michigan hockey team has largely struggled to fulfill what its assistant coach has been asking. In three of the Wolverines’ seven Big Ten games before Sunday’s game in Madison, Michigan held a two-goal lead in the second period — four times if you count both the 2-0 and 3-1 leads over Michigan State on Nov. 14.
All three times, the Wolverines broke under pressure as their opponents came back to win.
In the conference opener at Ohio State on Nov. 1, redshirt sophomore forward Emil Öhrwall found the back of the net for his first goal in a Michigan sweater halfway through the second period. The Wolverines led, 2-0, and had all the momentum.
Six minutes later, the Buckeyes halved the deficit, and Michigan couldn’t get its feet back. Just over a minute into the third, Ohio State found twine again. And not even two minutes after that, the Buckeyes took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The Wolverines bent, and then they broke.
Two weekends later against Michigan State, the breaking point was even more damning. Sophomore forward Garrett Van Wyhe had just given Michigan a 2-0 lead when the Spartans marched down the ice on the next shift and made it a 2-1 game. But the Wolverines bounced back — for the time being — when freshman forward Johnny Beecher fired a sharp-angle shot over goaltender John Lethemon’s shoulder and Michigan regained a two-goal lead.
As you either know or can guess by now, that two-goal lead was doomed. Michigan State made it 3-2 by the end of the second period and 3-3 just under four minutes into the third. By the 8:51 mark of the third period, the Spartans had taken the lead.
Once again, the Wolverines bent. Then they broke.
“There’s times where were just get too high or get too low and then you can see that in the game,” said sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg after that game. “Or some shifts don’t go our way, and you can kinda see that happen. (Mayotte) says, ‘Bend, don’t break,’ and I think we gotta keep working on that.”
It felt as though blowing a two-goal lead — twice — on home ice to its biggest rival would either be a turning point or a breaking point for Michigan. The game two nights later in East Lansing seemed to prove it was a breaking point, as the Wolverines were shut out for the first time all year in a 3-0 loss.
It was the Spartans’ first sweep over Michigan since 2009.
And when the Wolverines returned to conference play this past weekend at Wisconsin, the same story returned. Michigan got out to an early lead and led 2-0 in the second period.
In a blink, it was 2-1 after forward Dylan Holloway beat sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann when the Wolverines got caught in a slow line change. Minutes later, defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk made it 2-2 when he danced through all five Michigan skaters on his way to the net.
Inevitably, the Badgers took the lead just over halfway through the third period when defenseman K’Andre Miller’s shot bounced off freshman defenseman Keaton Pehrson’s skate and into the net.
For the third time in four weeks, the Wolverines blew a 2-0 lead and lost. The loss was characterized by mental lapses, of a team that just couldn’t find a way to win. A team that had long since passed its bending point and was now, truly, at its breaking point.
“But we have to find a way, we have to stick together and work through this time that we’re having,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson on Sunday. “Then once we find a way to win some games, we’re going to win our share of one-goal games. We just have to stick together as a group and continue to work. It’s the only way we’re going to get out of it.”
So, when Michigan found itself up 2-0 early in the second period in Sunday’s game, there was little reason to expect the script to be flipped. When freshman forward Nick Granowicz went to the box for roughing in the third period and Wisconsin’s Cole Caufield made it a 2-1 game with six minutes left, it looked to be, once again, the same story, different night.
But for the first time in Big Ten play, the Wolverines didn’t break. An empty-netter from senior forward Jake Slaker sealed things with 46 seconds left for Michigan’s first conference win.
“They’ve had some tough losses,” Pearson said Sunday. “And every time you lose like that it’s like somebody reaches in and rips a piece of your heart out, but they’ve continued to come and believe and work and so from that standpoint, it’s a huge win.”
Three times, the Wolverines broke. On the fourth, they bent — just a bit — and then managed, somehow, to hold strong.
It’s way too soon to make determinations about whether this win is a turning point for Michigan, because the Wolverines may well find themselves at another breaking point this weekend when first-place Penn State comes to town.
But for the first time, Michigan managed to do what Mayotte has been begging for all year.
Bend, but don’t break.