On Friday, the No. 3 Michigan hockey team had its worst offensive performance of the season. The Wolverines fired weak shots from the outside all night, struggled to create scoring chances and were shut down handily in all five power play attempts.
When the dust settled, Michigan recorded only one goal against then-No. 11 Minnesota — its lowest mark of the season.
“We were pissed Friday night,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “If you (walked) out of this locker room and you weren’t upset, you shouldn’t be playing the game. When I say upset, not so much losing, you have to hate losing, but just how (we) played and competed.”
The Wolverines unleashed their dejected feelings back at Minnesota in the second game of the series on Saturday, thoroughly outplaying the Golden Gophers in every facet of the game en route to a forceful 6-2 victory.
Whereas defensively, Michigan made strategic adjustments to stymie Minnesota’s speedy offensive attack — allowing five goals with little resistance on Friday, while giving up only two on Saturday — the Wolverines took a different approach to flipping the script on offense.
They changed their mindset.
“It was nothing technical, it was all in our head,” sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau said of the difference between Friday and Saturday. “It was all just, you know, how much we wanted it, and I think we kind of showed that as a group.”
Michigan was bullied each time it attempted to set up its offense on Friday. The Golden Gophers packed the blue line and limited the Wolverines’ ability to organize offensive schemes, a strategy effectively deployed against Michigan by more physical teams earlier in the season.
On the occasions when the Wolverines did manage to enter its attacking zone, Minnesota won puck battles and overwhelmed Michigan. The end result was a team that rarely entered the slot, handing reigning collegiate goaltender of the year Jack LaFontaine a particularly easy assignment.
The mentality shift was evident on Saturday, though, when Michigan attacked the slot with force and looked like a completely different team than the night prior. The Wolverines increased their shot total from 31 to 44, and turned the skilled LaFontaine from a brick wall to a sieve.
“It was just a mindset, really,” Pearson reiterated. “We just didn’t have that sense of urgency, (Minnesota) did. It’s as simple as that. It’s not anything that’s huge, it’s a simple thing.”
Over the weekend, Michigan’s young and talented roster once again showed that its biggest roadblock might just be itself. Its opponent didn’t change between Friday and Saturday. The Golden Gophers were still loaded with NHL talent, fast and aggressive on Saturday. They even scored the game’s first goal.
The difference was that the Wolverines decided to get out of their own way. Instead of getting “too cute” with the puck, as Pearson often likes to say, they blended their talent with a cohesive and focused mindset, wasting no time getting to their spots. Michigan honed in on a sense of urgency early, played together and held momentum throughout the contest. Such a focus will be key for the young team moving forward.
“You have to be ready to play every game,” Pearson said. “We need everybody, and I think you saw that on Saturday, we had some guys step up.”
Saturday’s bounce-back win came at a pivotal point in the Wolverines’ season. Friday’s loss marked their third straight conference defeat, and another loss to Minnesota on home ice could have proved that Michigan simply won’t be good enough to play championship-level hockey this season.
Yet, Saturday wasn’t a must-win game in terms of standings. The season is young, elimination hockey is a ways away. The game was, however, of paramount importance should the Wolverines want any momentum nearing a semi-winter break and key series in January and February.
By changing its mindset, Michigan rose to the occasion.
“After that first performance, we kind of had to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘Is this what you want from the season or do you want to actually show up every day and work hard?’” Bordeleau said.
“I think we responded.”