JT Compher skated down the ice, passed the Michigan hockey team’s bench and angrily smacked his stick against the boards on the other side. He then put his gloves on his knees and his head down. A few seconds later, freshman defenseman Nicholas Boka did the same thing.
About 10 seconds earlier, Compher ended up with the puck in his possession and no one between him and Minnesota goaltender Eric Schierhorn. In the waning seconds of Saturday’s series finale at Yost Ice Arena — after the Wolverines rolled Friday night, 8-3 — Compher couldn’t put it past Schierhorn for the equalizer. Instead, the Golden Gophers pulled out a 3-2 win to split the series.
That was how most of the night went. Michigan peppered 33 shots at Schierhorn, converting on just two. Friday, the Wolverines had 10 shots in 35 minutes, and everything went in. They knocked Schierhorn out after five goals.
Every weekend, Michigan seems to have one of each kind of night. Some nights, the pucks go in. Some nights, they don’t.
Of course, the Wolverines win all the time when they’re getting the bounces. They have done it even in the past three years, despite missing three straight NCAA Tournaments.
What they couldn’t manage to do Saturday was win when the pucks weren’t going in, no matter how close they were — and they were very close.
Michigan put itself in a 2-0 hole at the end of the first period, but for the No. 1 scoring team in the country, that’s nothing. At the 11:53 mark in the second period, freshman forward Kyle Connor scored his fourth goal of the series to cut the deficit in half.
“We’re reminding our team constantly — you just can’t bury your head and give up because the game’s not going the way you want it to,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson after practice Tuesday. “You have to be resilient, and then you have to come up with a strategy, or an attitude, or something, that’s going to change the momentum of the game if you need a change.”
Connor’s goal could have been the spark that started the Wolverines’ comeback. Instead, 19 seconds later, junior defenseman Michael Downing laid a crushing hit on a Minnesota player, earned a five-minute major penalty and was ejected from the game. He stayed on the ice for a moment, arguing with one official while another held him back. Compher pleaded his case, too. Berenson called the ruling “disappointing.”
It was no use. Downing was out, and Michigan was behind. Things weren’t going right.
But the Wolverines fought back. They stifled Minnesota on the five-minute penalty kill. Halfway through, they cleared the puck and changed lines as the Yost crowd let out a loud cheer. With a minute remaining, they did it again. Finally, they killed off the penalty.
Michigan came out for the third period still behind by only a goal, and 94 seconds into the final frame, Connor gave the Wolverines another boost. He stood on the weak side of the net and awaited a loose puck, and on the third effort he slipped it past the goalie.
At that point, Michigan had done everything it doesn’t always do when things aren’t going well. It played defense, killing off the penalty. It capitalized on its chances, scoring on the third effort. And it stayed in a rare low-scoring game long enough for the breaks to come.
With more than 18 minutes left, there was still plenty of time. But the break never came.
Instead, Minnesota came out of the ensuing faceoff and scored in 12 seconds. Forward Vinni Lettieri knocked a wrist shot past Michigan junior goaltender Zach Nagelvoort, and the Wolverines were in a hole again, this time one they couldn’t climb out of.
“That’s not a good goal to give up, and the timing couldn’t have been worse,” Berenson said. “We just bounced back, and all of a sudden that was a big goal for them, and a really disappointing goal for us.”
More often than not, they find their way out of that hole. They have the top scoring offense in the country for a reason, and usually, that’s good enough. Friday, they scored in the first 16 seconds — before the clock was even set on the scoreboard at Yost. They cruised from there, scoring every which way in a high-scoring victory.
In a down Big Ten, there will be at least one of those every weekend. (There were two last weekend against Wisconsin.) The Wolverines have the firepower to win those games.
A team with a great offense and an average defense that wins 8-3 games will win enough games in the regular season and the Big Ten Tournament to reach the conference final. It will have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, like Michigan did last season, before it lost to Minnesota in the Big Ten Championship, 4-2. The Wolverines proved Friday they can be that team.
But when they killed off the five-minute penalty, and then scored the game-tying goal Saturday, they almost proved they can be so much more. They almost proved they could win a 3-2 or 4-3 game, one that will be much more common in March.
“We had good shots. We had good chances. We had just about, and woulda, coulda, shoulda, but we couldn’t find the back of the net,” Berenson said.
That’s why Compher slapped the boards at the end of the game after he missed the potential game-tying shot. He knew what was at stake.
The Wolverines know they can win when everything is going right. What they have to do, and what they keep getting ever so close to doing, is win when everything isn’t.