Special teams difficulty leads Michigan to split with Minnesota
MINNEAPOLIS — Across the first 10 games of the season, Michigan’s power play scored 15 goals. In the ensuing 17 games, the Wolverines tallied just five goals on the man advantage.
This weekend against Minnesota, the Michigan hockey team had 12 opportunities on the power play, including three with a two-man advantage. But in the 27 minutes the Wolverines spent with an extra man — or two — across the two games, they failed to convert a single time.
While Michigan was struggling to find success on the power play, the Golden Gophers converted on four of their 11 chances with an extra man. The Wolverines’ penalty kill held strong in some moments, particularly in Friday night’s win, but the following day, it was the penalty-killing unit that allowed Minnesota’s game-winning goal.
“It was a special teams weekend,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “We were 0-for-whatever and they were 3-for-whatever and that’s the story. That’s the headline, that’s the story of the game. That’s it.”
Michigan knew coming into the series that the Golden Gophers’ power play was highly efficient — it entered the weekend converting at a 30-percent clip in Big Ten play.
And despite Pearson’s repeated messages about the importance of staying out of the penalty box, the Wolverines were whistled for 13 penalties over the course of the weekend. Freshman forward Dakota Raabe was called for four in the second period alone on Saturday night — one of which resulted in him being ejected from the game and a five-minute power play for Minnesota.
As soon as the five-minute major penalty was announced, the crowd seemed to be waiting for the Golden Gophers to score a goal. It felt all-but-inevitable.
But Michigan’s penalty kill remained composed and methodically eliminated the extended man advantage. In the third period, though, it broke down and allowed the Golden Gophers to score the game-winner.
“We talked about it that we couldn’t take penalties and it ended up killing us at the end,” Pearson said. “Just took too many penalties and the last one caught us. It’s no secret. Eight power play goals for them now in three games, you have to learn. … They’re not learning. Gotta put guys in the lineup who are gonna learn and do their job.”
The Wolverines got another chance after allowing that goal to Minnesota’s power play, but as it did throughout the series, Michigan’s power play couldn’t convert when it had a chance.
With just over a minute left, Gopher defenseman Tyler Nanne was sent to the penalty box for slashing. The Wolverines trailed by one goal, and the power play — their seventh of the game — offered an opportunity to send the game to overtime.
Pearson pulled freshman goaltender Strauss Mann for an extra attacker seconds before the penalty was called and opted to leave him on the bench so his team could have a two-man advantage.
It almost worked.
Junior forward Nick Pastujov got a look at a wide-open net as goaltender Mat Robson slid out of position, leaving the right side of the net free. But Pastujov’s shot went just wide and Minnesota was able to clear the puck down the ice, ending Michigan’s final scoring chance of the game.
“We had our chances,” Pearson said. “Pastujov at the end there, pass comes right through the crease, backdoor, and we whiff on it. We were just a little off. We were just a little off tonight, and you can’t be just a little off or else you’re not gonna win in this league.”
Pastujov’s wide shot was just one in a line of near-misses for the Wolverines on the man advantage over the weekend. Michigan created opportunities with the man advantage — it just struggled to finish them.
“I think we had some chances,” said sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes on Saturday. “I know I could’ve scored at least three in that second period, so I think sometimes it just doesn’t click for you. Obviously, that’s what’s going on right now.”
But the Wolverines’ power play has had difficulty since December — it didn’t just find trouble in this one series. The issues for Michigan on the power play run deeper than just having things not click.
And with just seven regular-season games left, with the Wolverines in a tenuous position for the postseason, time is of the essence for the power play to turn things around.