Michigan fails to make late comeback, splits series with Minnesota

Saturday, December 12, 2015 - 10:50pm

Diagnosing the Michigan hockey team’s identity has become nearly impossible.

Are the Wolverines a team that can erase three-goal leads at the snap of a finger? Or are they a team that will allow three-plus goals in a single period? What about nights where the nation’s top offense can muster only one goal against a much-lesser opponent in Dartmouth?

No one really knows the anatomy of the Wolverines (2-1-1-1 Big Ten, 9-3-3 overall). Even this far into the season. And not much is clearer after Michigan’s 3-2 loss to Minnesota on Saturday.

“Minnesota played with more conviction, they played harder and they got the lead,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “When they got that second goal, that was a higher hill to climb than maybe its been in previous weeks, and we just couldn’t climb it.”

Heading in to Saturday’s contest, Michigan couldn’t have felt comfortable. Even after putting up a snowball against the Gophers (3-1-0-0, 7-8-0) the night before — winning 8-3 — the past had to cross the Wolverines’ minds.

“Some nights the puck goes in too easy,” Berenson said on Friday, “and maybe this was one of those nights.”

Berenson’s comment stems from his team’s past performances during the second leg of a home series. Six weeks ago on Friday, Michigan came from two goals behind to beat Robert Morris, 5-3, before losing on Saturday, 4-0. Three weeks ago on Friday, the Wolverines dismantled Dartmouth, 7-0, before coasting to a 1-1 tie a day later. And last Friday, Michigan erased a three-goal deficit to beat Wisconsin, 6-4, before tying the same team 6-6 the next night.

And Berenson’s sentiment held true on Saturday.

“Last night, it was going in too easy, I told you,” Berenson said. “And tonight, it was not going in.”

The Wolverines, who have come out with strong starts the previous two weekends, struggled to find any semblance of offense in the first frame. And unlike the night before, Minnesota had no trouble doing the opposite.

Jake Bischoff opened the night’s scoring on the Golden Gophers’ first power-play chance. The defenseman rifled one from the blue line, and junior netminder Zach Nagelvoort never saw the puck. It didn’t take long for Bischoff to be heavily involved in a scoring play for a second time. Three minutes later, like he did on his first tally, Bischoff found the puck at the top of the slot and fired it toward the net. Forward Hudson Fasching, who was screening Nagelvoort, ultimately redirected the puck home.

And just when it seemed like Michigan had any sort of momentum when freshman Kyle Connor scored with seven minutes left in the first period, junior defenseman Michael Downing was ejected after laying a massive hit on Minnesota forward Connor Reilly. Berenson wasn’t pleased with the referees’ decision, calling the call “disappointing.”

Michigan was able to kill the five-minute penalty, but those were five minutes the Wolverines couldn’t pester netminder Eric Schierhorn, who was pulled Friday.

It looked like Michigan would have control of the game, and all of the momentum, early in the third period when Connor scored his second goal of the game — his fifth of the series. And that had Berenson smiling.

“He’s really, really starting to find himself now,” Berenson said. “I’ve always thought that freshmen usually take about half a year in, and then after Christmas they take off. And he’s starting to take off, so good for him.”

But Berenson’s smile quickly turned the other way on the very next shift when forward Vinni Lettieri put one past Nagelvoort on a point-blank chance.

“When they got that goal, the timing could not have been worse,” Berenson said.

Lettieri’s tally sealed the game and for the fourth straight home series, Michigan was unable to complete a weekend sweep.

So for now, the trend of Michigan playing sloppy Saturday games will continue and the opportunity to sing “The Victors” — a tradition after sweeping a series — will have to wait until 2016.