ALLENTOWN, Penn. — Despite entering the third period with a 4-0 lead, the Michigan hockey team still struggled to put Quinnipiac away. The Wolverines completely collapsed throughout the first 15 minutes of the final frame.
And Bobcats coach Rand Pecknold’s decision to pull goaltender Dylan St. Cyr with almost four minutes left saved Michigan’s season.
That’s not an indictment on the Wolverines. They manhandled Quinnipiac’s nation-leading defense throughout much of the contest. They earned their place in the Frozen Four.
But the Bobcats could’ve taken Michigan’s spot in Boston. Quinnipiac took over the game, seized all the momentum and then freely handed it right back to Michigan on Pecknold’s baffling decision.
“It was a pretty normal decision for how I operate,” Pecknold said of pulling his goaltender while his team was surging, having scored three unanswered goals. “… Probably the last 13 (to) 14 years, we’ve done that pretty regularly, getting the goalie out early. … It works a lot more than it doesn’t for us.”
As Pecknold made that statement, celebratory music from Michigan’s locker room blared into the media room while he spoke somberly. Clearly, pulling the goalie worked for the Wolverines, not his own team.
Michigan is uber-talented, but young and untested. It’s a critique Michigan coach Mel Pearson called out after the game, but one that made itself clear throughout the third period. The Wolverines have the talent to win a national championship, but older and more battle-tested teams have an advantage in composure and game management.
After the Bobcats scored their three unanswered goals, they continued to methodically desecrate Michigan’s young, faltering roster. Quinnipiac was calm and poised, and with its regularly dangerous attacks, it had a clear blueprint to victory with plenty of time.
That blueprint was thrown into the Lehigh River when the goaltender was pulled, a saving grace for Michigan’s young squad.
“We were reeling,” Pearson said. “… They had us on the ropes. It was an interesting time to pull the goalie.”
Halving almost four minutes left wasn’t the only shocking thing about the goaltender being pulled, it was the on-ice context as well. Instead of at least pulling the goalie while his team controlled possession in its offensive zone, Pecknold ordered St. Cyr to the bench before a faceoff, where the puck’s possession was in question.
Who does that?
The Wolverines could very well have won that faceoff and launched the puck into the empty net right then and there. Pecknold added extra strain to his decision by betting on his team to win the faceoff too. Although the Bobcats won the draw, sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau quickly challenged and stole the puck.
He then raced down the ice, passing it across to wide open fifth year senior Michael Pastujov for the empty-net goal that essentially sealed the game with over three and a half minutes left.
“They had all the momentum, and there’s like four minutes left in the game,” Pearson said. “I’m not going to question any coach. … (Pecknold’s) been around a long time, ton of respect for him … (but) they were pushing, they didn’t need to pull the goalie, they were all over us.”
With 22 seconds left in the game, defenseman Zach Metsa removed any room for debate, scoring Quinnipiac’s fourth goal on even strength. Had the Bobcats left their goaltender in, the fourth goal could have very well tied the game, giving Quinnipiac all the momentum entering overtime.
When asked if he regrets pulling his goaltender so early in hindsight, Pecknold’s answer was blunt:
Michigan certainly doesn’t regret it either. It was a team sliding into an embarrassing loss, and its opponent saved it from demise. By pulling his goaltender with almost four minutes left as his team was surging, Pecknold threw the Wolverines a life raft.
A raft that will carry Michigan to Boston for the Frozen Four.