MINNEAPOLIS — Jake Slaker stood at center ice and awaited the referee’s signal.
At the other end, crouched in the net was Minnesota goaltender Jack LaFontaine.
He and Slaker are far from strangers, they were teammates for two years at Michigan before LaFontaine transferred.
As Slaker skated toward one of his best friends with critical Big Ten points on the line, one thing crossed his mind. He hoped LaFontaine didn’t remember where he liked to shoot the puck.
Slaker followed a couple of small dekes with a quick shot that went right into the back of the net. Michigan’s bench emptied. The sudden death shootout was over. The Wolverines (15-14-4 overall, 10-10-3-2 Big Ten) had snatched the extra point in a 2-2 tie against the 18th-ranked Golden Gophers (14-12-7, 9-7-7-4).
“Probably our worst game of the year, our worst performance,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “ … Story of the night, Strauss Mann. Just hope he has enough energy to play tomorrow, I don’t know if he can even get up right now. But he was outstanding, that’s the only reason we were still in the game and we’re fortunate to get two points.”
The Wolverines’ path to the extra point was riddled with challenges and struggles.
Like in the second period, when Mann faced 21 shots. His teammates only tallied 10 on LaFontaine. And the saves Mann had to make came in all forms. Stick saves. Pad saves. Breakaway saves. Shorthanded saves. Odd man rush saves.
Minnesota threw everything it had at Mann, and he stood tall. He protected a lead Michigan had earned in the opening moments of the game. The play started when freshman forward Nick Granowicz connected with redshirt junior Luke Morgan on a pass that split two Golden Gophers defenders.
Morgan dragged the puck along the ice and in one fluid motion, elevated the puck over Jack LaFontaine’s glove. Aside from this moment, the Wolverines struggled to find offensive consistency in the game.
It wasn’t until the third period that the Wolverines showed a quick flash of their offensive potential again.
With 16 minutes remaining in the game, senior forward Nick Pastujov chased down a pass from sophomore forward Nolan Moyle. Pastujov beat one Gopher defender with a series of dekes before he came face to face with LaFontaine.
“I just saw a quick transition where I knew I was coming up the ice with some speed,” Pastujov said. “I saw the D flat footed and I knew if I could get that body position with the far side, I could beat the goalie there. It was nice that it worked out that way.”
Michigan had a two goal lead. And then pretty quickly after that, it had a one goal lead. And 10 minutes after that, it didn’t have the lead at all.
The Wolverines’ trouble started with Minnesota defender Jackson Lacombe receiving a pass in their defensive zone. He skated two steps in the direction of Mann, then released a shot that beat him stick side.
In response to surrendering a goal, Michigan didn’t step up, it didn’t fight back as hard as it needed to.
With about seven minutes remaining, junior forward Jack Becker received a five-minute major and game misconduct for boarding.
Michigan surrendered the tying goal on the penalty kill when Golden Gopher forward Brannon McManus redirected his teammates’ shot past Mann.
“They pushed hard,” Pastujov said. “They made a really strong push towards the end and obviously the power play didn’t help. We’ve got to come out with a lot more grit, a lot more effort, especially in the D zone tomorrow.”
Friday night, not many things went right for the Wolverines. They played on the wrong side of the puck for most of the game. They gave up too many odd man rushes. They let Minnesota take too many shots.
But despite that, they left Mariucci Arena with the extra point. That single point boosted them into fourth place in the conference standings. That puts them in a position to have home ice in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament providing one thing — it wins one more game.
But it’s not just one more game. It’s the last game of the season. Everything is on the line for both teams. And for the Wolverines, a team that has had its fair share of struggles throughout the entire season, Saturday is a chance to prove that when everything is on the line, they can rise to the occasion. Or they can wilt.
Only time will tell.