Wolverines haunted by missed opportunities, fall to Wisconsin

Saturday, February 3, 2018 - 8:59pm

The adage “three strikes and you’re out” may have originated with baseball, but it works fairly well in hockey too.

One minute into Saturday’s game, Michigan defenseman Sam Piazza motored around to the left circle, where his shot rebounded off of Kyle Hayton’s pads. The puck then bounced to a wide-open Cooper Marody with the Wisconsin goaltender nowhere near the play. Marody, a Hobey Baker Award nominee, normally puts away chances like those in his sleep. His attempt flew past Hayton — and the pipe.

Not long after Marody’s near-miss, senior forward Tony Calderone poked the puck away from a Badger near the blue line. The Wolverines’ leading scorer had a clean breakaway, but Hayton stonewalled him deep in the crease.

A third opportunity — while not quite as golden as the first two — came a minute later. On a three-vs-two, freshman forward Josh Norris laid the puck off to freshman forward Dakota Raabe, who cruised unchallenged into the slot. Again, Hayton made the save.

When Wisconsin forward Trent Frederic slipped the puck past Hayden Lavigne four minutes later, the tone was set. The Badgers made the most of their chances. The Wolverines didn’t. Thusly, Wisconsin (8-9-3 Big Ten, 14-13-4 overall) came away with a 4-2 win Saturday night at Yost Ice Arena, splitting a crucial Big Ten series between two teams neck-and-neck in the conference standings.

Despite winning 5-3 on Friday, Michigan (8-10-2, 13-13-2) was seemingly outplayed for long stretches, especially during the third period. The opposite was the case Saturday. The Wolverines consistently controlled the puck and outshot the Badgers, 34-33, including a high volume of grade-A opportunities.

“I thought we had a better effort tonight. I thought we played a better game,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “We created more offense tonight than we did last night. Had some golden opportunities, especially that first five, six minutes, we came out and were all over them played in their zone. ... We put one of those in, I think you see a totally different game tonight.”

Instead, Hayton, who replaced Friday night starter Jack Berry, was up to the task all night for Wisconsin. Brilliant with both his glove and his pads, the ECAC goalie of the year last season at St. Lawrence posted 32 saves to keep the Wolverines at bay.

“We had all the opportunities in the world to make it a 5-4 game for us and he stood on his head, made a few really good saves and hurt us,” said sophomore forward Jake Slaker. “But it comes down to us. It’s not really what (Hayton’s) doing, it’s what we’re doing.

Michigan suffered some self-inflicted wounds, too, but none hurt more than Wisconsin’s second goal, which came against the Wolverines’ shaky penalty kill. Thirteen minutes into the first period, Badger forward Ryan Wagner stretched out his stick and sent a slow roller into the crease that had no business finding the net. But junior defenseman Nicholas Boka couldn’t clear it, Lavigne didn’t see it in time, and the puck crawled past them both.

Just 56 seconds later, forward Cullen Brady lasered a wrist shot from the right circle past Lavigne. In the span of six minutes, the Badgers had taken a 3-0 lead.

Michigan went on the penalty kill early in the second period, again with disastrous results. Defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk scored on a rip from the blue line just five seconds after the initial face-off, prompting Pearson to insert sophomore Jack LaFontaine between the pipes in relief of Lavigne.

“I just wanted to get (LaFontaine) in the net,” Pearson said. “Just to get him some minutes and see how he was, and I thought he did an outstanding job. He gave us a chance to come back in this game.

Michigan took advantage of that chance. Slaker found the net midway through the second with an angled shot off a pass by senior defenseman Sam Piazza. Eight minutes into the final stanza, Jack Becker lit the lamp on a power play to pull the Wolverines to within in striking distance. Meanwhile, LaFontaine stopped all 18 shots that were sent his way.

But it takes more than one strikeout to lose a baseball game, and the same logic applies to hockey as well. The three opportunities the Wolverines had early in the first period weren’t the only strikes they took — for them, missed opportunities defined the contest.

When Kalynuk went to the box early in the third period, the ensuing power-play proved to be a microcosm of all of the chances Michigan had to take control of the game. Freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes missed the net wide right. Calderone fanned on an open shot from the slot. Hayton extended an elastic reach to deny Slaker from straight on.

The misses kept coming up until the final horn. On a two-on-one, Norris hit Slaker with a perfect pass, but his effort sailed high. After the Wolverines pulled LaFontaine in desperation mode in the final minute, junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi’s shot went wide by mere inches. And that was that.

“Frustrating,” Pearson said. “That’s the best word to describe this evening.”

Added Piazza: “I thought we had a really good start, we played well enough to win. Just really unfortunate we couldn’t put the puck in the net early, and they got a few crappy bounces. Just one of those nights.”