Standing just below the left circle, Michael Pastujov received a pass from Jacob Hayhurst behind the net. In an instant, without wasting time settling the puck for a shot, Pastujov snapped a wrist shot toward the mouth of the goal.
Penn State’s goaltender, Peyton Jones, lied prone in the crease as Michigan applied pressure. It looked as though Pastujov was going to find twine and tie the game at two goals apiece with just over a minute left. The Wolverines even began to celebrate as the puck flew toward the net, thinking there was no way it wouldn’t be a goal. Pastujov was quick with his release, and he had a wide-open target to shoot at.
But instead, somehow, some way, Jones got a piece of the puck, deflecting it high and neutralizing the scoring chance.
Seventeen seconds later, forward Denis Smirnov hit the empty net to make it a 3-1 game with under a minute left. Michigan’s chance at coming back and getting the sweep was gone.
“It’s kind of just been the same story all year,” said senior forward Will Lockwood. “Guys just gotta bear down on chances, including myself, and that’s just a mindset. We gotta come in with that mindsight right at the beginning, but I think we’re doing a lot of the right things.”
Throughout Saturday’s game, the Wolverines struggled to finish on scoring opportunities. And as Lockwood said, Michigan’s offense has told the same story throughout the season.
Through their 18 games this season, the Wolverines rank third in the nation with 584 shots on goal. Their shot percentage, however, is 58th out of 60 teams at just 6.7 percent. The numbers state it about as plainly as anything could — Michigan just cannot find the back of the net. In Saturday’s matchup, the Wolverines put 43 shots on net and attempted 68 in total.
They scored only one goal.
“We continue to struggle scoring goals,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “Last night, we didn’t score on our best chances. You saw we got four, and we could’ve had nine. Tonight, we could’ve had I don’t know how many.”
And it isn’t a matter of not getting opportunities, as the Wolverines’ third place shot total demonstrates. Every game, players fail to convert on Grade-A scoring chances.
Saturday, that stood out about as much as it has all year. Throughout the lineup, Michigan missed chance after chance.
Senior forward Jake Slaker was stopped by Jones on a one-on-none breakaway from point-blank range. Jones stopped sophomore forward Garrett Van Wyhe that way, too. Late in the game, when Pearson pulled sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann to give the Wolverines an extra attacker, they continued to fail to execute on scoring opportunities.
Pastujov missed the best look Michigan had with the extra attacker, and freshman forward Johnny Beecher had a couple chances of his own that couldn’t find the back of the net.
In the third period, Michigan outshot Penn State, 19-10, but couldn’t get a goal out of it.
“We probably had as many good chances this weekend as we’ve had all year, against a team that has played well defensively,” Pearson said. “Against a team who likes to spend a lot of time — I don’t think we spent much time in our zone in the third period when the game’s on the line.”
Even earlier in the game, when the Wolverines were attempting to battle back from a one-goal deficit, Michigan demonstrated an inability to convert on chances. Sophomore forward Jimmy Lambert had two open looks on the power play in the second period. Hayhurst, too, had multiple chances on the doorstep of the crease and couldn’t punch the puck in.
And as the Wolverines continue to try to dig themselves out of last place in the Big Ten, the offense needs to find a rhythm. Michigan hasn’t won this year when it’s scored less than four goals, and the Wolverines average just 2.17 goals per game.
It’s becoming clear that without the offense finding a way to light the lamp, this team will continue to struggle at the bottom of the conference.
“We have to score goals,” Pearson said. “And we’re not doing that.”