The Michigan hockey team (6-10-2 overall, 2-7-1-0 Big Ten) almost completed a comeback against No. 6 Penn State (12-5-0, 7-3-0-0). And if it had, the comeback would’ve marked the first time this season the Wolverines were able to do so, and their first Big Ten sweep.
Instead, the game followed the same trajectory that can sum up the first half of the Wolverines’ season — they played well enough to win, but ultimately couldn’t finish the job.
“We played hard,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “All we can do is ask our players to give it their best and lay it on the line and walk out of here knowing they did that. I don’t know if we can play much better than we did tonight. We fought our way back from that two-goal deficit and I thought in the third period, we were the best team.”
But really, the Wolverines had sealed their fate by the time the first period ended. The Nittany Lions nabbed a 2-0 lead heading into intermission, and though the Wolverines responded quickly, it wasn’t enough. When the clock expired at Yost Ice Arena, the scoreboard favored Penn State over Michigan, 3-1.
The Wolverines’ two-minute struggle started when they took a penalty for too many men on the ice. It happened while senior defenseman Griffin Luce was heading off the ice for a line change.
His replacement, freshman defender Keaton Pehrson, had already come over the boards. Luce was a just a step from the bench the puck ricocheted off the boards and hit his skate. The referee blew his whistle — and for the third time that period, Michigan was going to have to kill a penalty.The Wolverines had successfully killed the Nittany Lions’ first two opportunities, and they hoped to continue their shutdown of Penn State’s power play.
But these hopes were thwarted 18 seconds later, when Nittany Lions forward Nate Sucese buried a one-timer to beat sophomore goaltender Strauss Mann.
In the wake of Sucese’s goal, Michigan needed to regroup and badly. But it would have to wait for the intermission, because barely a minute after the first goal, Penn State extended its lead to 2-0.
There were just seconds remaining when Nittany Lions forward Evan Barratt found the puck at the top right side of the crease. Carrying the puck on his stick, he danced around Mann and finished on a wide open net.
“I think that was just a lapse,” said redshirt junior forward Luke Morgan about the second goal. “We took the penalty, that’s tough, and they score (while we’re) shorthanded. We might have put our foot off the gas at the end of the period a little bit. You can’t do that. They capitalized on that.”
Then, when the puck dropped to signal the start of the second period, Michigan mustered a quick response to the Nittany Lions’ late offensive push.
The Wolverines pushed into the offensive zone off the opening drawing. Junior forward Michael Pastujov found himself in the middle of a battle along the boards. Pastujov was checked by a defender and lost his balance but not before he threw the puck across the ice and toward the goal. Simultaneously, redshirt junior Luke Morgan streaked towards the net.
Pastujov’s pass crossed his path, and in one fluid motion, Morgan rifled the puck into the goal. With Morgan’s goal, Michigan inched closer to a comeback, but still trailed, 2-1.
“It was huge,” said senior forward Will Lockwood. “You could just tell, the momentum swung there. That was really big for us. I’m really surprised we didn’t get another, I think if we got that next one, got that bounce, we would’ve won the game, no doubt. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but that first goal was big for us.”
As the storyline has been all season, the Wolverines had chances, but didn’t finish them. They outshot Penn State in both the second and third periods, tallying a total of 43 shots on net. But none of these chances crossed the goal line, none of them aided the attempted comeback.
With time running out, and Michigan still applying pressure, still searching for an equalizer, still looking to prove it could stage a comeback Pearson made the decision to pull Mann for an additional attacker.
It almost worked. As Mann skated to the bench, Pastujov climbed over the board and skated into the offensive zone. Fifty second later, he was faced with an open net, as the Penn State goaltender was sprawled on the ice. Pastujov fired a shot. It went just over the crossbar.
The Wolverines had almost tied the game.
But not even twenty seconds later, Nittany Lions forward Denis Smirnov shot the puck into the empty and made the score 3-1.
As the teams lined up to shake hands, the Wolverines’ ability to respond quickly to adversity didn’t matter. All their offensive opportunities didn’t count for anything more than stats in a column.
When the game ended, the score sheet favored Penn State and though Michigan almost staged a comeback, the only thing reflected in the stats was how damaging its two-minute mental lapse proved to be.