Defensive flaws lead to uneven series against Wisconsin
MADISON — After losing 7-3 the previous night to No. 9 Wisconsin, the No. 17 Michigan hockey team started strong in Saturday’s series finale, scoring two goals in just over seven minutes to take an early 2-0 lead.
At first, it appeared the Wolverines had learned from Friday night’s mistakes. But then the floodgates opened for the Badgers, and Michigan (2-2-2-1 Big Ten, 6-4-2 overall) just managed to scrape together a 4-4 tie and shootout win to end the weekend.
“We’re just too casual, too complacent, too soft,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson about his team’s breakdown on defense.
From the opening puck drop, the visiting Wolverines were dominant, moving the puck precisely on offense, limiting the opposition’s scoring chances and entering center ice swiftly on the counterattack.
Michigan protected its two-goal advantage with persistent back checks near the blue line, 10 blocked shots and just five shots on its goal. The momentum continued midway through the first period when freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes extended his stick near the goalmouth, deflecting a Wisconsin shot headed for an open net. For the first time in nine periods, it looked like the Wolverines wouldn’t allow a goal.
But with just four seconds until the first intermission, Wisconsin (3-2-1-0, 8-5-2) scored on a power play to cut its deficit to one heading into the dressing room. The Badgers entered the next period revitalized, throwing four shots on goal in the first two minutes.
This would be the story of the second period, with Wisconsin outshooting Michigan, 18-9, and tacking on two more unanswered goals — including one with the man advantage — to seize a 3-2 edge.
And in what looked like a rebound performance, the Wolverines suddenly defaulted to what got them in trouble 24 hours earlier. Sloppy play in transition, struggles down low and three penalties halted the high-octane offensive production and suddenly erased the 2-0 margin.
“I think it was a mental breakdown on our part,” said senior forward Tony Calderone. “Our second period was really tough, we didn’t play the way we wanted to, and they ended up capitalizing. That’s on us, not on (sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne).
“We have to learn to play with leads. I think that’s been a common theme. I think we need to close out games. We can’t be going into overtime, can’t be coming back every single game — it doesn’t work — so we need to learn how to play with a lead.”
Michigan responded with a tally from sophomore forward Jake Slaker to tie the game at three and a wrist shot off the stick of sophomore forward Nick Pastujov momentarily gave the Wolverines the upper hand once again.
But with just 1:10 left in regulation — after pulling their goaltender the previous minute — the Badgers scored with an extra attacker to send the contest to overtime. A win and split series was snatched from Michigan’s grasp, after giving up its 21st goal in the past four games.
Nevertheless, the offense again managed to bail out the defense. Shootout goals from Calderone and junior forward Cooper Marody gave the Wolverines an extra point in the Big Ten standings and averted the team’s first weekend sweep of the season.
The Wolverines’ offense hasn’t been the problem. Coming into the weekend, it was ranked fourth in the country with 3.9 goals per game. Marody is currently riding an eight-game, multi-point streak, and Calderone has six goals in his last four starts, including three against Wisconsin.
Pearson has routinely commented on the potency of his team’s offense. This weekend, he praised contributions from more than just the top-six players on the first two lines.
But each time he commends the offense, Pearson seems to conversely critique his blueliners’ ability to step up in the big moments, especially when down a man.
“Four goals are a lot to give up on the road,” Pearson said. “We’ve got to continue to work on that. We also gave up two goals on the power play, so we have to get better at that. We just made it too easy for them on the power play.
“Some tough penalty calls, they were ticky-tacky on some of the calls, but we have to understand what they’re calling. And then on the penalty kill, we need to be more aggressive.”
Marody believes good communication between defensemen and forwards — as well as support in scrums behind the net — is crucial to combat high-performing offenses, notably those within the Big Ten.
“Some bounces just didn’t go our way, but we definitely have to tighten some stuff up, and we’re going to work hard in practice to do that,” Marody said. “We can’t let in three, four, five goals and think we’re going to have a great season, so we have to tighten that up for sure.”
Following Friday’s loss, Pearson believed the lopsided score didn’t accurately reflect what unfolded on the ice, besides being beaten defensively.
“Overall, we played a pretty darn good hockey game on the road, but we’ve got to be better defensively,” Pearson said. “We have to have better goaltending, we have to take advantage of our opportunities.”
On Saturday night, the Wolverines began to capitalize. Pucks started to bounce Michigan’s way and shots hitting the post weren’t deflecting away — but instead reaching the back of the net.
Saturday, Lavigne made 30 saves on 34 shots, standing tall in the crease and muting most Badger scoring chances. Pucks that leaked through sophomore goaltender Jack LaFontaine on Friday were instead kicked aside with the blocker pad, stick and — multiple times — the blade of Lavigne’s skate the next night.
Still, the Wolverines needed lockdown defense to split the series. But Wisconsin broke through to force a tie, and a game just within Michigan’s clenches was taken away.