Behind big exhibition win, Wolverines surrender momentum midgame
It would have been understandable if fans had walked out of USA Hockey Arena on Saturday night just 25 minutes into the game. The Michigan hockey team led the U-18 U.S. National Development Program, 4-0, after senior forward Dexter Dancs tapped in a power play goal just over five minutes into the second period.
But leaving, of course, would have been a mistake. Masked behind the Wolverines’ statistical rout of the USNTDP was the fact that a shift in momentum would soon make the game a lot closer than could have been anticipated from Michigan’s flying start.
Two minutes after Dancs’ goal, USNTDP began to chip away at the Wolverine lead. On a power play, forward Oliver Wahlstrom was the first to knock the puck past sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne.
And in the blink of an eye, USNTDP had cut its deficit to two. Under two minutes after the first goal, forward Patrick Giles found the back of Michigan’s net, too. With just over three minutes remaining in the period, Giles fired again, successfully evading Lavigne’s gloves for the second time of the night.
In the course of 13 minutes, within a sole period, the Wolverines went from unevenly dominating a game to almost surrendering their edge.
“I think this is one of the biggest games on (USNTDP’s) schedule,” said senior forward Tony Calderone. “They wanted to bring it to us, so we had to match that.”
A common theme in Michigan’s games this season have been big, late-game comebacks, leaving fans on the edge of their seats throughout the second and third periods. But Saturday night’s exhibition match saw almost the reverse for the Wolverines. Michigan began with a sizable lead but almost lost it, and was outshot by USNTDP over the final two periods of the game.
And the Wolverines attributed their second period energy shift to easing up on offensive intensity.
“I think we get too comfortable,” Calderone said. “We get a couple goals up, and everyone kind of sits back. It’s something we need to work on going forward.”
Michigan coach Mel Pearson echoed these sentiments, highlighting the danger of getting comfortable with your position in a game no matter the score.
“We got comfortable with a big lead tonight,” Pearson said. “And it’s easy to think you have the game where you want it, and just relax a little bit. And the other team, I’m sure the coach is getting after them a bit, and that’s the difference. We even scored the first goal in the second to make it 4-0.
“It’s like if you’re going up a hill and you have to keep your foot on the gas pedal. But if you take it off you’re not going to keep climbing up that hill, you’re going to start going backwards. And I think that’s part of what the problem was tonight, anyway.”
The “second period slump” is a concept that the Wolverines have been familiar with recently, unable to keep up with the pace set by the opposition during the period.
In four of its last six games, Michigan has been outscored in the second period. And this exhibition was a continuation of that trend — something the Wolverines would like to see altered before returning to their conference schedule.
Pearson attributes Michigan’s difficulty to keep its large lead in the second period to the pace of line changes. Due to the nature of the exhibition, the rotation of line changes was slower, as every Wolverine had the opportunity to see ice time in the match.
“We just wanted to try some different things tonight,” Pearson said. “We dressed everybody, and that’s one of the things that made it difficult, as players were not getting on the ice as much as you would like.”
Despite Michigan’s sluggish display in the second period, the Wolverines were able to compose themselves in the final stanza, tacking on three insurance goals while sacrificing none.
But the second period should act as a cautionary tale for Michigan as it moves forward with Big Ten matchups. The exhibition highlighted how quickly momentum can shift when one team’s offense starts getting hot and the other stays idle.