When the puck found the back of the net, everything went quiet.
After 67 minutes and change of back-and-forth, grinding hockey, the crowd at Yost Ice Arena was fired up and hoping to see Michigan (3-4-2 overall, 0-2-1-0 Big Ten) find a way to get a comeback win over Minnesota (3-4-2, 0-1-2-2).
But with one flick of his stick, Minnesota forward Jaxon Nelson brought the crowd to silence. His backhander flipped over sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann’s shoulder, and the Golden Gophers secured the extra Big Ten point in double overtime, beating Michigan, 2-1.
“We got caught in a real bad gap,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson of the final goal. “We didn’t angle very well, and then he had a big gap, so he had a lot of room and space to gain speed. He just walked around us, made it look easy. We were flat-footed and skating backward and he had all the momentum and just walked around us.”
The Wolverines had the majority of the scoring chances in the first overtime period at even strength, but Minnesota goaltender Jack LaFontaine — who spent two years at Michigan from 2016 to 2018 — made the saves to keep the game tied. To begin the three-on-three period, Michigan was down a man after sophomore defenseman Jack Summers was whistled for hooking with one minute left in five-on-five overtime.
But the Wolverines’ penalty kill held strong, despite being down four-on-three as the second overtime began. They allowed just one shot that Mann was able to save, and it looked as though Michigan was going to find a way to break through for the extra point.
That changed in an instant as defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf passed the puck to Nelson in Minnesota’s own zone. Nelson was off and running through the neutral zone, beating sophomore forward Jimmy Lambert, senior forward Jake Slaker and Summers on his way to the net.
“It was just the guy coming up with speed, I think we lost our guys there,” Summers said. “And he just went around both of us and had speed and put it to the net, so that’s just one we’ve gotta make sure we have our guys and be better next time.”
Though Michigan had most of the momentum in the second overtime after killing the penalty, all it took was one moment where the Wolverines were out of position to bring the game to an end.
It was a similar story on Minnesota’s first goal of the night, which came with just 57 seconds remaining in the second period.
Forward Brannon McManus beat sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg by half a step in the slot and it was all McManus needed to find space to light the lamp, breaking the scoreless tie.
Moments later, fifth-year forward Jacob Hayhurst sent a backhanded pass to Slaker coming down the slot. Slaker attempted to backhand the puck into the net, but he couldn’t finish on the chance — a moment emblematic of the Wolverines’ offensive struggles throughout the game.
“We’re struggling offensively right now,” Pearson said. “Boy oh boy, I wish I had some answers, but we just have to make sure we’re playing well defensively. The offense is gonna come, it’s just a matter of time, but we’re in a funk right now.”
At 11:24 in the third period, Hayhurst found twine for his first goal of the season on the only scoring chance Michigan converted all night. His goal tied the game, and Michigan continued to pressure from there. The Wolverines out-shout the Gophers, 18-4, in the third period, but only lit the lamp once.
In the end, the inability to find the back of the net was their undoing.
“I liked how our team played in the third period,” Pearson said. “We have to bottle that and find a way to play with that urgency and desperation all game like we did in the third.
“Could even see it in overtime. I thought we had the best looks and the better chances, and then we get a penalty and we did a real nice job killing off that. We sacrificed, did a great job. Then we had a couple other great chances. We just can’t score right now.”
Michigan’s lack of offensive output, coupled with a zero-for-six showing on the power play and a dismal second period, ended its chances at getting out of the game with two points in the Big Ten standings.
After getting swept by Ohio State to open Big Ten play last week, one point in Friday night’s game was not what the Wolverines wanted — or needed.
“It’s tough,” Pearson said. “We’ve been in these one-goal games, and we’ve gotta find a way to win those games. Right now, we’re just finding a way to lose those. The points are so critical.”