Dressing two defensemen on the forward line, the No. 12 Michigan hockey team entered its game against No. 18 Penn State short-staffed. Three Wolverines exited Friday’s matchup early due to injury, leaving them without key players for the second night of the series.
And those losses were ultimately too much to shoulder as Michigan (6-6-2 overall, 2-4-2 Big Ten) fell to the Nittany Lions (6-4-3, 1-2-3), 5-3.
The game began with promise for the Wolverines as freshman forward Garrett Schifsky opened the scoring ten minutes into the first period. Schifsky sent the puck deep in a seemingly harmless play that soon took on a life of its own. The puck took a fortuitous bounce, ricocheting off the boards and sliding into the net to give the Wolverines an early 1-0 lead.
In a series where Michigan has been seemingly unable to catch a break, it finally got a bounce to fall its way. But that turned out to be the only break that it would see for the rest of the evening.
Penn State drew a hooking penalty against senior defenseman Jacob Truscott shortly thereafter, putting Michigan on the defensive. The Nittany Lions threatened throughout the extra-man opportunity until eventually cashing in off a tic-tac passing play in front of the net to even the score.
This pattern — one in which Michigan took the lead and Penn State stormed back to tie it — repeated three times. The Nittany Lions refused to go away quietly, utilizing an aggressive forecheck to wear down an already depleted Wolverine roster.
“Being shorthanded in hockey is not easy, especially when there are key players out like that,” sophomore forward T.J. Hughes said. “I thought we worked hard and we battled, but at the end of the day, we have to come up with wins here. It’s not good enough, so we have to find a way.”
Michigan fought hard to remain in the game. The Wolverines generated opportunities off the rush, drew penalties throughout the contest and provided big blocks to preserve their lead.
Nevertheless, those efforts were ultimately not enough.
Penn State found a way to score goals in the deciding moments of the game by creating havoc around the net and evading Michigan defenders long enough to create scoring opportunities. With 4:45 left in the second period, Penn State generated traffic in front of the net, taking away graduate goaltender Jake Barczewski’s eyes and scoring the equalizer to knot the game at three a piece.
At that moment, there was plenty of hockey left to be played. Michigan still had a chance to retake its lead later and add a few insurance tallies to put away the Nittany Lions for good.
Yet, a late-period injury to sophomore defenseman Tyler Duke reflected the adversities that Michigan struggled with from the very start. The Wolverines were without the services of key players, and those losses were most evident in the deciding moments of the game.
“It’s extremely difficult,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “When guys get hurt, I’m not thinking about who’s in or who’s out … I’m thinking about the six-week or six-month process that they have to go through mentally and how we can help them get through that. It’s a lot.”
The combination of the late-period goal and injury to Duke that further hampered depth put Michigan in a vulnerable position to allow the go-ahead goal, which was exactly what happened.
At the tail end of the second period, Michigan turned the puck over in the neutral zone. Penn State pounced on this turnover and turned it into offense going the other way. The Nittany Lions took the lead shortly thereafter for the first time in the game, scoring a goal off a tip from a fluttering puck in mid-air. The goal put Penn State out in front from then on forward.
After a scoreless third period before a late empty net goal by Penn State, the Wolverines exited the game much like how they started it: with a loss too much to overcome.