Something changed when the Michigan hockey team walked off the bus in East Lansing on Friday.
The Wolverines (3-5-2 Big Ten, 7-7-2 overall) seemingly imploded in a 5-0 loss, which followed a commanding 4-0 win just the night before.
“I think, after the win yesterday, we got a little too comfortable,” said senior defenseman Sam Piazza. “We had a bad start and it just got worse from there.”
Onlookers were left wondering what happened against the Spartans (2-7-1, 8-9-1). A high-octane offense that saw senior forward Tony Calderone net a hat trick in the game Thursday apparently lost its spark, unable to get on the board Friday.
This time, the Michigan defensive front wasn’t the problem – as it has been in recent weeks – but rather, the transitionary game was.
The Wolverines turned the puck over in the neutral zone, in the attacking third of the ice and even behind their own net. This wasn’t the case the night before, as 29 shots and four goals showcased the Michigan offense as a seamless streamline from the back line to the front.
However, the Wolverines’ woes were solidified when forward Patrick Khodorenko scored the Spartans’ second goal with just 4.9 seconds remaining in the first period to give them a two-goal lead.
Throughout the game, Khodorenko and forward Mitch Lewandowski – who tallied Michigan State’s third goal Friday – were giving the Michigan defense a substantial amount of grief.
Alongside forward Taro Hirose – who added to the Spartans’ behemoth of an offensive performance with three assists – the duo wreaked havoc in all facets of the game. What was shocking, though, was their silence the night before.
When the Wolverines were in East Lansing, they somehow could not hold onto the puck long enough to generate scoring opportunities. The aforementioned turnovers in all portions of the ice significantly stymied the Michigan offense.
“They checked us a little bit tighter,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “We didn’t take care of the puck as well as we needed to.”
And as a result, Michigan State’s odd-man rush was able to make the Michigan defense look like Swiss cheese.
“We had more odd-man rushes tonight than we might have had over the last month,” Pearson said. “A lot of the cause was turnovers. We just didn’t take care of the puck.”
Back-passes from the slot to the blue line sailed back into the neutral zone, dumps were not contested by the right and left wings and the Spartans’ forwards out-bodied the Wolverines’ defensemen for pucks near the net.
So, the question remains, how can a team play the same team with such ease one night, and have a total shutdown the next?
Turning over the puck on most possessions didn’t help, and the Wolverines will have to use yet another break period – returning to play Jan. 1 – to iron out the kinks.