For the No. 3 Michigan hockey team, this week could only be characterized by ailments.
With five typical dressers unable to play, illness running rampant and a goalie playing left wing, the losses just kept piling up. Even as two skaters who missed Thursday’s affair returned to the ice on Friday, they were replaced on the bench by two more.
And playing with a weary cast of characters once again, Michigan (9-5 overall, 2-4 Big Ten) fell to No. 2 Minnesota (10-4, 6-2), 6-3, completing the Golden Gophers’’ sweep in a series marred by sickness.
“(I’m) extremely proud of these guys, and the resiliency that they showed,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “… We’re never gonna give up. These guys fought to the end, and I think they deserve better.”
With limited options at hand, the Wolverines still tried to remedy the issues that cost them a game the night prior. Or the ones they could control, at least.
After turtling in its own defensive zone on Thursday, trying to limit the damage done against a depleted roster, Michigan switched up its game plan. From puck drop, the Wolverines instead pushed the tempo to create the offense they often lacked the day before.
To some degree, the change worked. Michigan outshot Minnesota by eight in the first period alone after losing the shot battle by 10 on Thursday.
But even with the Wolverines’ increase in shot volume, the Gophers still struck first.
Halfway through the first period, Minnesota defenseman Jackson LaCombe collected the puck at the left dot, ripping a wrister high-left to open the scoring. Forward Rhett Pitlick soon followed that up with a one-timer, before forward Matthew Knies added one on the power play in the second period, solidifying the Gophers’ momentum.
“Stuff happens,” freshman forward Gavin Brindley said. “It’s gonna happen. It’s all about our response, and we responded really well, just didn’t go away tonight.”
Even down three goals and two skaters, Michigan would not give up. With six-and-a-half minutes left in the period, sophomore forward Dylan Duke shoved a loose puck past diving Michigan goaltender Owen Bartoskewicz, cutting the deficit to two.
But Minnesota forward Jaxon Nelson soon answered with a goal of his own, sucking the wind out of Michigan’s sails.
Perhaps that showed most at the second period buzzer. The bench exploded after freshman forward Rutger McGroarty netted a last-second goal, but it was ruled too late moments later, marking the latest blow in an endless slew of setbacks.
The Wolverines continued to fight, though. Duke tipped in another shot in the third period from just outside the crease, accounting for his fourth goal on the weekend. But while sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich quickly responded with a point wrister goal to Nelson’s second goal of the night, Michigan never brought the deficit below two, even before the Gophers scored a 180-foot empty-netter.
“We believed we could come back in the third period,” Naurato said. “They’re just fighting for everything to make it work. We got some goals, but it didn’t work out.”
As time slipped away, so too did the Wolverines’ chances of pulling off the upset. With barely enough players to field a roster, as well as multiple players hobbling over to the bench throughout the game, Michigan was simply hurting too much to take Minnesota down.
“It sounds cliché, but it’s been a tough week,” Naurato said. “There’s no excuses for the wins, the losses, whatever, but we know what we do moving forward.”
After a week where the Wolverines took enough punches to last an entire season, there wasn’t enough left in the tank Friday to complete the comeback.