When the referee blew his whistle with 12 seconds remaining in the game, the Michigan net resembled the scene of a battlefield.
Sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann laid flat on his back with his glove on the ice. Senior defenseman Griffin Luce sprawled across the goal line. Sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg sat partially on top of Mann, and junior forward Michael Pastujov settled for a spot at the top of the crease, the blue ice barely peeking out from under him.
As the Wolverines slowly stood up one by one, Blankenburg leaned over to Mann and patted his chest. They’d done it. Together, the team had kept the puck out of the net — keeping Mann’s shutout alive.
“I think at the end, it almost becomes a little bit of desperation,” said freshman forward Johnny Beecher. “They’re just kind of fighting and clawing for a puck bounce. You just gotta make sure you’re getting back and helping out Strauss. He’s playing unbelievable so we gotta make sure we have his back.”
For only the second time in his career — and the second time in three games — Mann recorded a shutout. All 36 times the puck came in his direction, it ended up in his glove or under his pads or deflected by his stick or redirected by his blocker.
In moments where Michigan played sloppy and the momentum favored No. 18 Western Michigan, Mann remained focused and confident. He stayed crouching in his crease, waiting for his team to call upon him.
The Wolverines started the game with a strong offensive presence. Five minutes into the period they took an early one-goal lead. The puck had found the stick of Beecher, who netted his first career goal after beating the Broncos’ goaltender five-hole. Just barely two minutes later, the puck made contact with the netting as sophomore forward Nolan Moyle finished off a no-look pass from classmate Garrett Van Wyhe.
But just as quickly as Michigan had all the momentum, it lost it. Western Michigan’s offense was tallying shot after shot in the closing minutes of the first period. The Wolverine defense stalled out. When turnovers happened, Mann protected his team’s lead with everything he had.
“Again, the first star of the game was Strauss Mann,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “He could have been the first, second and third (star) tonight.”
The Wolverines successfully killed off both the penalties they got whistled for. And Mann — the most important penalty killer on the ice — worked in unison with his team to keep the Broncos’ score sheet at zero.
One of Western Michigan’s best scoring opportunities came with four minutes remaining in the second period. A Bronco skater dashed through center ice with the puck on his stick, a break away in the making. Sophomore defender Jack Summers chased him down, positioning his body in a way that forced the attacker away from the middle.
Summers’ defensive moves made Mann’s save easy, and once again, Western Michigan’s offensive burst was shut down.
“I think the biggest thing tonight was we bent, but we didn’t break,” Mann said. “We just stuck with it and we had a couple lapses. But guys stepped up with huge blocked shots, like (senior defenseman) Luke Martin and all the other D and forwards. It was just a collective win.”
Late in the third period, the Wolverine’s grip on the game loosened. At times, their defense struggled to clear the puck from the zone. When they managed to clear the puck, defenders starting pushing offensively and left Mann with less support.
Observing these shifts in the flow of the game, Pearson called for a timeout.
“We got away from our game,” Pearson said. “It was just coming at us. We were becoming spectators. We had to start playing. I just wanted to tell our team, let’s play for our goalie, I mean he’s playing his rear end off. Let's start playing for him.”
It was a brief reminder that while the game was at hand, there were others with things left to lose. Mann’s perfect game, and career high number of saves, was at risk.
But when the buzzer sounded on the fifth game of the season, Mann had already proven his ability to shoulder the weight of the team in its moments of vulnerability.
And while the dying seconds of time ticked from the clock at Yost Ice Arena and the Wolverines piled into the net to keep Mann’s shutout alive, his teammates proved they had his back. Just like he had theirs.