At the final buzzer, Jake Slaker could only slam his stick down at the ice in frustration, shattering it in two.
The junior forward recorded six shots on net and a goal in the Michigan hockey team’s 4-2 loss to Merrimack Tuesday night. His efforts helped give his team a chance to win the game. The defense, however, lost it.
The play that preceded the stick break wasn’t necessarily either one’s fault. Who could see a game-clinching empty-net goal, as freshman goaltender Strauss Mann skated away from the post, coming? But it was a situation the Wolverines should have avoided in the first place.
Throughout the game, defensive struggles, ones that Michigan coach Mel Pearson thought had ceased coming out of Saturday’s game at Notre Dame, reappeared. Breakaways, unmarked attackers and easy shots on goals — all things that the opposing team shouldn’t have had. Yet, the Warriors had it all. On the flip side, the Wolverines had to scrape by for every chance they generated, and even more so on the ones they converted.
“You can’t give up the easy goals like that,” Pearson said. “Especially when you have to struggle so hard to score, like we do right now, but you can just tell, it’s just a little bit intensity. We’re not a gifted team as far as scoring goes. We have to really work for our goals and tonight we had to really work for our goals.”
As the team tried to take a step forward after its match up with the Fighting Irish, the defense took two steps back.
The play that best exemplified this happened close to puck drop. A Merrimack skater flipped the puck away from the defensive zone and into neutral ice. It dropped between senior defenseman Nicholas Boka and junior defenseman Griffin Luce. Neither made the push for the puck, and an easy possession turned into a sprint to stop the breakaway attempt for the Warriors.
The defensive regression proved costly minutes after when Merrimack scored the first goal on a breakaway. It all began when freshman defenseman Nick Blankenberg left his assignment to make an on-puck play.
The switch up left Warrior Patrick Kramer open, and senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi couldn’t rotate in time. Merrimack’s Jordan Seyfert, who broke from pressure, found him, and he scored.
“We just had a defenseman leave the middle of the ice and come all the way across the ice to try and make the play and they got a breakaway,” Pearson said. “They got a (two-on-one), it should’ve been a two-on-four the way it was shaping up, but because we left an area.
“Never should have done that. That’s not a good play. And now it gives the momentum. It gives them some energy.”
Added Slaker: “Once we go down, we know that their goal was probably a defensive let-down and we were making mistakes in the D-zone.”
But Michigan cleaned up. With Slaker’s top-shelf goal and tightened-up defense, it tied the game at one apiece. An unnecessary play by Boka, however, turned the tides. Boka got into a scuffle at the end of the second period, committing an unsportsmanlike penalty in the act and putting the Wolverines at a disadvantage coming out from the final intermission.
“We take a bad penalty at the end of the period, a real bad penalty, and they convert on it, a real soft goal,” Pearson said. “We didn’t give them much, but we made some key errors at critical times, and that cost us.”
The special team defense had committed too many men to the battle near the boards. The puck was lodged against it, and three of the four skaters for Michigan were actively trying to poke it away. While the Wolverines were pursuing the puck, an unmarked Warrior skater curled away from the battle and stationed himself in front of the net. As the puck leaked out toward him, there was nothing between him and the goal besides Mann, and a simple shot through Mann’s legs created the late deficit.
“Not prepared to play, and that’s up to each player to be ready to play,” Pearson said on Michigan’s performance. “Couple comments from our team, ‘We didn’t take them serious’ or whatever. I don’t know how you can because we’re not that good. We have to take every team serious to have a chance to win.
“I thought we made some progress at Notre Dame, you know, and I thought we took a step back tonight.”