SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. — It took eight minutes for the No. 12 Michigan hockey team to find twine. After back-and-forth play with minimal shots to show from either side, the Wolverines (3-3) finally broke through against Lake Superior State (5-0) to take the first lead of the game.
But the early lead wouldn’t last, as the Lakers poured in five goals and Michigan fell on Friday night, 5-2.
Sophomore forward Josh Norris and junior forward Will Lockwood were streaking down the ice with just one Laker defender positioned between them and goaltender Nick Kossoff. Norris received a pass from Lockwood and fired a shot that caught the top right corner of the net for his fourth goal of the season.
“I can’t say enough about not only the goal, but just his effort tonight,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “I thought that was his best game of the year. He really thrived on this environment where it was a physical, hard-nosed game and I thought he really showed up and played hard. He was our best player by far, by far tonight, and good for him.”
The Wolverines’ lead lasted just under seven minutes before Lake Superior State found twine, cleaning up a rebound in front of junior goaltender Hayden Lavigne. Just 43 seconds later, on the power play, the Lakers took the lead after forward Brayden Gelsinger capitalized on a defensive zone turnover by Michigan and tucked the puck in behind Lavigne.
One score right after the other, and suddenly, Michigan was trailing by a goal.
“We had a good start, we got the first goal,” Pearson said. “Then one of our freshmen pinched and gave ‘em — they scored a goal, and then we got a penalty on the same play and bang, now it’s 2-1, and we’re chasing the game.”
Pearson has spoken about not wanting his team to be chasing the game before. Through the early part of the season, the Wolverines have had to recover from early deficits in half of their matchups, including exhibition games. When you have to try to come back from being down a goal, or even two or three, it puts more pressure on the team and the discipline starts to slip.
Friday, the discipline certainly slipped, with Norris and defenseman Steven Ruggiero nearly dropping the gloves at the end of the first period. In total, Michigan was penalized six times in the game, with three of those coming in the opening stanza — after being penalized just twice in last weekend’s series.
“When you’re on the road, you have to be disciplined, you need good goaltending, and you have to take advantage of your opportunities,” Pearson said. “I don’t know if we did any of the three tonight. That’s not a good recipe for success.”
Junior forward Jake Slaker took advantage of an opportunity midway through the second period after the Lakers’ lead had already grown to three. Slaker received the puck from Lockwood and tucked a backhanded shot past Kossoff, cutting the deficit to just two.
Slaker’s goal came after a stoppage of play in which Michigan coach Mel Pearson seemed to take time to reorganize his team. After the timeout, the Wolverines’ passing was crisper, turnovers were fewer and the defense made a stronger effort to clear loose pucks from the crease to get Lavigne out of tough situations. In short, they looked more like the Michigan hockey team that swept St. Lawrence last weekend.
Pearson said he didn’t tell his team much in that timeout, but rather chose to remind them that there was a lot of hockey left to play. His attempt to settle them down worked for the time being, but the offensive chemistry and overall cohesion seemed to be short-lived.
Minutes after Slaker’s goal, senior forward Brendan Warren fired a pass from the left side of the crease to the right for a waiting Dakota Raabe. But the pass went just beyond the sophomore forward’s stick, and the wide-open net in front of him had vanished by the time he corralled the puck.
“We got the chances, we had enough chances to score. We have to make sure we capitalize on them,” Pearson said. “We had opportunities to get the game closer but we couldn’t just –– didn’t seem to be able to capitalize.”
And when a team is playing on the road, capitalizing on opportunities becomes all the more important. An excited road crowd can be silenced by a quick goal or two, but the shots have to go in for that to happen. Friday night, not enough chances were finished to silence the crowd.
Instead, the crowd was fired up by the physicality and big hits from Lake Superior State. From the first minute of the game, when freshman defenseman Nick Blankenburg was pushed into the glass, the hits seemed to come nearly every minute. The Wolverines were caught somewhat off-guard by the physical nature of the game, some of which, according to Pearson, was due to the referees not stopping plays that got out of hand.
“I don’t think it’s even a hockey game, it’s like roller derby on ice, unfortunately. Now you have to play through it,” Pearson said. “I think it just got way beyond (the rules). But that didn’t win or lose us the game. We have to make sure we do some things better, we’ve gotta show up and compete.”
On Saturday, Michigan knows there’s a hard-hitting, hard-nosed game waiting. Players like freshman forward Garrett Van Wyhe and Norris — both of whom enjoy playing physical games — have a chance to excel.
But, only if they can finish their opportunities.