Recall the first game of the season, a shock that came to many when the then-No. 4 Michigan hockey team fell to unranked Vermont.
What was anticipated to be a relatively easy game ended in a loss that showed holes in both the Wolverines defense and offense.
“I thought we weren’t ready to play tonight, we weren’t really ready to play,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson after the loss to the Catamounts. “We came in today with the mindset that it was going to be easy and that we were going to come out and score 10 goals on them.
“Anytime you have that mindset, we got behind early and dug ourselves a hole. We clawed back a little bit. We did a lot of really good things, we just couldn’t score. Some nights they don’t go in, so you can’t give up four goals anywhere, at home, on the road, anywhere, and expect to win. You can check the stats, you gotta keep it to about two goals or under to have a chance. You give up four, you’re asking for trouble.”
Now think back to Tuesday’s game against Merrimack. The Wolverines got into an early deficit in a game they figured to win and struggled to score goals while allowing four on the defensive end.
The Vermont game was the first of the season. The Warriors were the 23rd. The same problems that occurred then, as Pearson noted Tuesday, are still occurring now. Only back then, it took the goaltender 48 saves to stop the Michigan offense, whereas Tuesday, it took 36.
So as the season progresses, a supposed non-issue is becoming more apparent as a critical weakness for the team — scoring.
Even after the second game, Pearson always believed the offense would grow as the team grew. After all, at the start of the season, new linemates were getting acquainted with one another, and younger players were learning the system. Pearson’s expectation has always been the same.
“The goal scoring will come, the goal scoring will come,” Pearson said after Michigan’s exhibition game Oct. 7. “If you’re forced to have to score five, it gets difficult. If you give up four goals, it gets tough to score five.
And yet, against Merrimack, the team allowed four goals. And as predicted, it’s tough to score five, especially when a team is clawing back from behind. Against the 52nd-ranked team according to Pairwise, the Wolverines could only muster two goals, ones that required full effort just to get a good look.
The two came from junior forwards Jake Slaker and Adam Winborg. Slaker, who managed to get a step on his defender, hit a well-placed shot over the goaltender’s shoulder. Winborg fought for positioning for his goal, redirecting a slapshot from the blue line.
But these plays were never the issue. It’s the ones that fail to score — despite all the opportunities created — that raise questions. How can the Wolverines, second in the nation for shots on goal and third in the nation for total shots, struggle to score so much?
Moments in the Merrimack game offer explanations as to why.
The first three minutes of the game were well played by the offense. Seven shots on goal, plenty of dangerous scoring opportunities were present. However, the team grew stagnant following its early barrage of shots, and more so after Michigan conceded a goal.
Even after it drew a power play off of a hooking penalty, the offense struggled to get anything going. The first 40 seconds were spent attempting to entry the puck into the offensive zone, and quick clears by Merrimack made it more problematic for the Wolverines to get their special teams going.
After the team finally pushed the puck into the zone, junior forward Will Lockwood received the puck at the blue line. Faced with incoming pressure from defenders, he instinctively swung the puck out across the line to where another player was supposed to be to keep the offensive push alive. Only no one was there, and instead, the Warriors stole the puck during Michigan’s man advantage.
The power play ended with no shots on goal.
“We’re looking for a little bit too much offense playing — when you’re playing Notre Dame you know it’s Notre Dame and you know they’re a tough team,” Slaker said. “Coming in, we just didn’t play good enough early. That caught us, we went down, and we ended up chasing the rest of the game.”
The problem early was that Michigan was looking for something that wasn’t there. Passes that went aimlessly into the other team’s possession, rebounds that went untouched on the goalie’s stick-side and shots that would have benefitted from an extra pass were all issues exploited by the other team’s defense.
“That’s the difference, pucks all around the net, and we can’t convert,” Pearson said. “It’s more of the same for us.
“If you have it even around the net — and we missed the net a lot — they blocked a lot of shots, but we missed the net a lot. Over the net, wide on greater scoring opportunities. We’re not a gifted team as far as scoring goes. We have to really work for our goals.”
The realization of the team’s inability to score goals is the first step to fixing both sides of the puck. The offense can’t score five goals on any given day, and as Pearson hinted, a defense can’t expect that and give up four goals.
“It’s hard to play from behind, and we keep finding ourselves in that situation,” Slaker said. “It’s costing us games, and it’s starting to get frustrating.”