Following a dramatic, come-from-behind win against Vermont on Oct. 21, Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson said his skaters had started to establish themselves as a “third-period team.”
The next Friday at No. 19 Penn State, the Wolverines (5-3-0) had two one-goal leads in the final period, only to allow two Nittany Lion equalizers to force overtime and eventually secure a 5-4 Penn State victory. But the subsequent night was a different story, as Michigan scored two goals within 74 seconds early in the third, winning the game 5-2 and splitting the series.
Last Thursday, the Wolverines reverted to their new, self-proclaimed identity against Ferris State. What initially looked like a nail-biter over the first 40 minutes — with the Bulldogs one breakaway from tying or leading the game — quickly turned into target practice for Michigan come the third period.
After sloppy play on both sides of the puck — including being outshot 11 to nine in the second period — and a 1-1 stalemate after two periods, the Wolverines finally broke loose early and often in the final stanza. Michigan controlled possession time within the offensive zone, put 26 shots on net and scored four unanswered goals, sealing a 7-2 routing.
However, the next night again showcased late-game inconsistency. With a chance for its second straight home sweep, the Wolverines outshot the Bulldogs 12 to five and scored on a power play in the same frame. Nevertheless, Ferris State responded with the tying goal and eventually left Ann Arbor with a 3-2 overtime triumph and shocking series split.
Through eight games, 13 of Michigan’s 28 goals have come in the third period. But the squandered late scoring opportunities have slowly started to equal those capped off by goal flurries.
Despite the similar feel of yet another third period dominated by the Wolverines, the results were starkly different in the stunning loss to the Bulldogs. Pearson faults an inability to capitalize on quality chances in the third period as a major reason for a disappointing end to the series.
“When you look at the shots and shots attempted, I think we did a pretty good job taking the play to them,” Pearson said after Friday’s loss. “I think the shots were 22 to 12 and the ‘grade-A’s’ would be maybe six or seven to one, so I liked our third period.
“We were a little soft in our zone on their second goal, the tying goal, defensively. We have to engage a little bit harder, a little bit more aggressive, but we didn’t. And then they got a quick pass and a goal. But I liked our third period — I can’t tell you we had a poor third period — but we just have to finish. We had great chances and it’s going to bother me watching the game back and watching the missed opportunities.”
Though the team failed to execute Friday, Pearson holds confidence his team will continue to play with high energy down the stretch. He cites the presence of experienced upperclassmen as a catalyst for a recent, locked-in focus in the final period.
“I think our leadership is really good,” Pearson said last Thursday. “They’re doing a good job of keeping the team in the moment. We can as coaches ask them to do that, but we’ve got some real good leaders and extends to our coaches in the locker room. Just calm everything down, there’s a certain way we need to play to have success in the third period and we document that. Short shifts, manage the puck, play with discipline, a lot of things and if we can do that, we’re going to have success in the third period.
“We’ve got enough guys who can score. If you play on the right side of the puck, check the other team, you’re going to get your opportunities, especially when they have to start pressing. For the most part we did a good job, but we still have to get better. I know we’re only seven games in and I expect this to be in midseason form, but lots of really good things going on.”
Junior defenseman Luke Martin agrees with Pearson about the importance of veteran leadership, but doesn’t see his approach and composure change from period to period.
“I’m a solid steady presence back there,” Martin said. “I think I just continue to bring that in the third and hopefully be a little bit of calming influence on some of the younger guys. We just keep going forward and playing every shift like it’s going to make or break the game. And I think that’s just an important mentality in the third.”
Closing out games in dominant fashion starts and ends with prevailing on defense, an area that still needs to be improved, Pearson and players concur — especially with No. 4 Minnesota (7-3-0) and its high-octane offense traveling to Ann Arbor this weekend.
The Wolverines allowed just five goals in the third period this season, but all came at precious times and some off avoidable defensive miscues. They ultimately cost Michigan two straight sweeps against Penn State and Ferris State.
Even with the hot Golden Gophers in town, the Wolverines expect to post impressive third period showings, stemming from a re-energized spark Pearson believes his team possesses late in contests. But it’s a matter of exploiting scoring chances that will be the difference between a sweep for either team and a split against one of the Big Ten’s — and NCAA’s — best.