DETROIT — Jack Becker wound up from just beyond the blue line and fired the puck towards goal. It was a speculative, mostly harmless effort, meant more to keep the goalie on his toes than anything else.
Bowling Green goaltender Ryan Bednard rose up and did the routine thing with it. A second later, the puck was in the net.
Bednard inexplicably dropped the puck and it fell over his right shoulder, resulting in Becker’s first collegiate goal, which couldn’t have come at a better time for the Wolverines. After being down 4-0 in the second period, Michigan now trailed the Falcons by just one goal with seven minutes to play.
But in a season in which thrilling rallies have almost become the norm for the Wolverines (7-8-2 overall, 3-5-2 Big Ten), they couldn’t quite climb all the way back this time, losing 6-4 to Bowling Green (9-6-6, 7-2-5 WCHA) in the first game of the Great Lakes Invitational.
“We’ve been there plenty of times this season unfortunately,” said senior forward Tony Calderone. “We’ve been able to come back, but when you allow that many goals, you can’t come back every night and tonight, unfortunately, we couldn’t do it.”
For the first ten minutes, the action on the ice was as quiet as the sparsely-populated Little Caesars Arena itself. Neither Bowling Green or Michigan dominated puck possession, launched an avalanche of shots on goal or put together a highlight reel of miracle saves.
But what was merely a sluggish start became brutal for the Wolverines in just 69 seconds. The Falcons struck when Tyler Spezia rammed home the puck off a rebound in the crease, and they doubled their lead when sophomore goaltender Jack LaFontaine didn’t see Justin Wells’ wrist shot sail over his left shoulder.
It got worse after the first intermission. Lukas Craggs wove his way through a maze of white sweaters to make the lead 3-0 just 15 seconds into the second period. Three minutes later, LaFontaine stopped two consecutive breakaways, but a third consecutive save was too much to ask, as Connor McDonald finished it off to push a stunned Michigan squad into a four-goal hole.
The reeling Wolverines needed a lucky break, and they got one a few minutes later. Sophomore forward Jake Slaker bolted after a loose puck near center ice, skated towards goal and did what any experienced goalscorer does with that kind of opportunity, smoothly placing the puck beyond the goaltender and into the net.
With 35 minutes remaining in the game, there was still enough time for Michigan, now trailing 4-1, to use Slaker’s goal as a springboard for a fierce comeback. After all, this is the same team that rallied from three and four goal deficits two nights in a row against then-No. 4 Minnesota two months ago.
This comeback, however, would have been the most improbable yet — and the Wolverines almost made it happen. Slaker fired one through the five-hole five minutes into the third period, and Calderone answered a Falcon power-play goal with a bouncing shot from close range three minutes later. When Becker found the net in ridiculous fashion, all bets were off.
“You give yourself a chance,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “The guys kept playing and I got to give them credit for that.”
But Craggs placed the dagger with an empty-net goal with 74 seconds remaining, dooming Michigan to the third-place game of the GLI against Michigan State on Tuesday.
“We weren’t good. They were good. They were the better team,” Pearson said. “They were ready to play, they played harder, they played with more conviction, they handled the puck better, and got better goaltending. By any measure, we were not good.”
Added Slaker: “If you look at every aspect of the game they outworked us — more shots, more hits, they were working harder. It just came down to them outworking us. We fell short, and now we don’t get to play in the big game tomorrow.”