MINNEAPOLIS — No matter how talented a team is, how much chemistry it has or how long it’s been since its last loss, one thing remains constant:
You have to play by the rules.
The No. 3 Michigan hockey team failed to do so throughout its battle at No. 11 Minnesota, paying the ultimate price when it was unable to kill a major penalty that spilled into sudden-death overtime.
“Too many penalties,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We can’t keep sticking our hand in the fire and not expect to get burnt against a good team.”
The Wolverines’ penalty kill unit — which successfully killed 23 consecutive penalties entering the contest — was called upon too often, hampering Michigan’s chances at building offensive momentum, keeping the Golden Gophers within reach.
The barrage of three first-period penalties set the scene for the Wolverines’ shambolic lack of discipline. Despite killing all three man advantages, Michigan’s inability to stay out of the penalty box gave way to a new problem entirely.
Replacing reigning NCAA Goaltender of the Year winner Jack LaFontaine after his recent departure to the NHL, the largely inexperienced Close was eased into the biggest start of his career. His opponent was constantly forced to kill penalties instead of setting up an offense, buying him time to find his rhythm in the crease.
As the game wore on and the Wolverines’ penalties temporarily subdued, Close was ready for a more aggressive offense attack. He responded emphatically, making difficult saves throughout to keep the contest tight.
“(Justin Close) looked fantastic tonight,” Minnesota coach Bob Motzko said. “Does not look like there’s been any dropoff since Jack LaFontaine decided to find another career.”
Failing to shake Close set Michigan up for failure once its discipline woes returned. The Wolverines weathered a tripping penalty by freshman forward Mackie Samoskevich that involved a series of point-blank shots and odd-man rushes in the second period. The kill amassed to four successful kills on the night and extended Michigan’s streak to 27 penalty kills in a row, but one last assignment near the end of the third period awaited the PK unit.
It proved to be the dagger.
Tied at one with two minutes left, a shot from defenseman Jackson Lacombe created a chaotic scene in front of sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo. As Portillo dislodged his own net, sophomore defenseman Jacob Truscott slammed into a defenseless Gopher skater from behind. Truscott was called for a five-minute major misconduct penalty, subjecting the Wolverines into a man disadvantage for the remainder of the game.
“You just gotta go wrap the guy there,” Pearson said. “You can’t hit him from behind or give the referees any chance to be able to call that penalty. You have to be careful.”
Truscott’s carelessness was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Michigan’s stellar penalty kill tumbled like a house of cards.
Once the power play transitioned to a four-on-three advantage in overtime, Minnesota wasted no time ending the Wolverines’ hopes of another penalty kill. Playing on their larger ice surface with only seven total skaters on the ice, the Golden Gophers had plenty of room to operate, dispositioning Michigan’s penalty killers with efficiency and leaving them unable to take control of the puck to clear it.
Just over a minute into overtime, two quick passes left forward Ben Meyers open on the right side for the game-winning snipe.
The Wolverines were forced to deploy their penalty kill one too many times, dashing any hope of a series-opening win on the road.
“Penalties, we can’t give those opportunities,” Pearson said. “… We gotta learn.”