The unspoken assumption of a defensive game

Saturday, February 22, 2020 - 7:42pm

.

Alec Cohen/Daily

None of the Michigan hockey players said it. Mel Pearson didn’t either.

But they didn’t have to.

Even if no one said it aloud, it was easy to see why, in a hard-nosed, gritty defensive battle, that the one to come out would be the one to strike first. 

For all of Saturday’s game, Michigan and Notre Dame had struggled to score.

Both teams went two full periods unable to produce a single goal. The scarcity of goals wasn’t the fault of poor offense, but rather exceptional defense. Both sides have stout goaltending. They play the passing lanes. They pack the crease. And they recognized that the highly-coveted first goal would be the deciding factor.

“You just don’t want to play from behind,” sophomore forward Garrett Van Wyhe said. “Get that first one and then we can kind of dictate how the rest of the game goes.

If we get that first one, that means that we’re hard on the forecheck and we are playing our systems. If you get that first one, then they’re kind of scrambling and maybe we can get the second one quick. But the first goal is huge.”

And the Wolverines failed to obtain it — leading to a 3-0 loss.

Going into Saturday, Michigan knew what mindset it needed to have. Just the day before, the Irish had given them another two scoreless periods to start the game. Just the day before, the Irish had broken the ice late to snowball goals in rapid succession, dominating the low-scoring affair.

The point was hammered home; the first team to score was the one to win.

“When you give up a goal — whichever team is gonna score, they’re gonna get the momentum,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “That just shifted like that. We just didn’t have enough pushback in the third period. We were tired. We were exhausted both mentally and physically, at that point.”

That’s the nature of a scrappy game. Goals give energy; they spark positivity. They give affirmation that all the banging and physical play was worth it. And when the stalemate lasts all game, the suspense of the first goal builds. If it hasn’t come after two hard period’s worth of work, what says it comes at all?

But it did come — for Notre Dame. The Irish struck in the middle of the third period after Spencer Stastney held the puck and waited for his shot, curling through the slot. He slung it on net and it rang on the back pipe, quickly bouncing in and out. If you blinked, you would have missed it.

In fact, Van Wyhe didn’t even think it went in. But when the play was under review, it became clear to everyone upon the first replay. It was a goal. And the dejection came shortly after.

“You just see it. You sag, and then you start thinking about last night’s game,” Pearson said. “We were exhausted. We pushed hard. You need that fire, that spark, and when you go pretty much six periods without scoring — last night was an extra attacker goal. It starts to wear on you both mentally and physically. More mentally.”

The mental wear led to the collapse. After the first goal was scored, Notre Dame’s second followed less than two minutes after.

Michigan began to panic, forcing offense and jeopardizing defense in a desperate attempt to tie the game.

“(The Irish) just play a certain way,” Pearson said. “They wait for their opportunities and they take advantage of their opportunities.”

And at the start of the game, the Wolverines did, too. But after the late goal was scored, their patience was running thin. They jumped on high pucks; they tried to pushed behind the net. They were playing out of their normal defensive system and chasing offense where there was none.

“They’re trying to do too much instead of just, ‘Hold on, keep back, wait until we get some better opportunities,’ ” Pearson said. “We just tried to push forward too hard.”

It was the mental strain of being unable to produce.

“I think we just get in our head a little bit,” Van Wyhe said.

Added Lockwood: “When we swept them, I think we scored both goals first. If we would have gotten that first one, it could have been a different story both nights.”

At that point, it was wishful thinking. If they had gotten that first goal, things could have been different. If they had gotten that first goal, they could have controlled the game. If they had gotten that first goal, they could have won.

And those were words they didn’t have to say aloud.