Josh Ernisse turns to receive a pass from Frank Nazar as two Minnesota defenders look on.
Michigan's late game collapses have pointed fingers at the defense. But perhaps it's the offense who can dispel those woes with improved third period performances. Anna Fuder/Daily. Buy this photo.

It’s no secret that No. 14 Michigan hockey faces an uphill battle moving forward this season. With only one win and a singular tie in their last six games, and a roster depleted by injuries, the Wolverines need to stop the bleeding. And they need to do so fast.

“We need to look in the mirror,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said Saturday. “We still need to find a way to be better and have success.” 

And when they look in the mirror, they should focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses.

It’s easy to pinpoint issues that have stymied Michigan’s success thus far. Problems with puck management and protecting leads have become clear patterns in losses, and such trends have been discussed at great length. But there has been a traceable pattern across the Wolverines’ wins as well.

Each of Michigan’s six victories this season shares two things in common: the Wolverines scored five or more goals, and at least one of those goals came in the third period. 

Whether it was its 6-4 victory against Penn State or the 10-1 thrashing of Lindenwood, Michigan found success by pushing the tempo of the game and tapping into its offensive prowess until the night’s end. In doing so, the Wolverines slammed the door on opponents and effectively put games out of reach.   

And the statistics prove Michigan is more than capable of producing such high-end offense. The Wolverines have outscored their opponents 64-43 so far. They are first nationally in team points (178), first in team assists (114) and they boast the No. 1 power play in the country (35.6 conversion percentage).

Such figures reflect that Michigan can be an offensive powerhouse when it chooses to be.  However, this is a strength that largely disappears in the third period, as evidenced by the last four losses.

The recent series against Minnesota illustrates this notion. In the first game of the series, the Wolverines held a 3-1 lead late in the second period. They looked like the stronger team all night, with even Minnesota’s head coach Bob Motzko acknowledging that fact after the game. But it wasn’t enough. 

A two-goal lead is commonly known as ‘the most dangerous lead in hockey,’ and that proved to be true for Michigan in this case. The Gophers scored three straight goals to win the game, 4-3. The Wolverines’ offense — one that looked potent for the first two periods — effectively went silent in the deciding frame.

Against Wisconsin, a similar story unfolded. Michigan scored four goals in the first two periods of the game, and it led the Badgers 4-3 heading into the third period. But once again, the offense vanished, and with it, the Wolverines’ lead did too. 

Time and time again, Michigan has entered the third period with a lead and watched it slip away. It’s natural for the Wolverines to want to protect their lead and close out the game. Such a focus on defense, however, takes away from the team’s ability to create and produce on offense — one of its biggest strengths. The Wolverines play their best hockey when they utilize their speed and skill throughout the contest, and that’s what they need to sustain in third periods.

The Lindenwood series demonstrates as much.  The Wolverines scored four goals in the third period throughout that series, which paved the way to their first and only sweep of the season. And Michigan looked downright dominant while doing it. The Wolverines controlled possession of the puck, dictated the pace of the game and played with a level of confidence and swagger that propelled them to success. 

If Michigan wants to right the ship, it will need to rediscover that same confidence. Tapping into the high level of offense in the third period — one that it has shown it’s capable of producing — could be a way to pursue that goal.  

Of course, this is a tall order given the current circumstances. The Wolverines’ battle with injuries will make it increasingly difficult to generate such high-end offense in critical moments of the game.

Nonetheless, there is still loads of talent in the locker room as it stands. Graduate defenseman Marshall Warren believes that to be true. 

“We just have to come together,” Warren said Nov. 10. “I think we have all the talent in the room. We have the right guys. It’s just a matter of our mentality.” 

Warren’s beliefs are supported by real data. Sophomore defenseman Seamus Casey ranks fifth in the nation in assists per game. Sophomore forward T.J. Hughes recorded 18 points in 14 games. Sophomore forward Frank Nazar III scored three goals in the past four games. Recent injuries will create a setback in production, but they will not eliminate it entirely.  

A greater focus on offense in the third period will not singlehandedly propel the Wolverines to a winning record. Nevertheless, centering the conversation on the team’s strengths rather than its weaknesses might be a way to attack the uphill battle they currently face.

It’s a conversation worth having — especially as losses continue piling up.