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Junior defenseman Keaton Pehrson was caught in unfamiliar territory. As Michigan underwent a line change, Pehrson remained in Wisconsin’s defensive zone. Despite being short three teammates, Pehrson’s relentless pursuit of the puck overpowered the Badgers. He won the battle all by himself and the Wolverines gained possession. That was around the time where Michigan would hit a wall — both literally and figuratively.

Wisconsin’s game plan was clear: Do not allow the Wolverines any room in the slot. Their tight-knit defense seemingly blocked every Michigan shot, constantly sacrificing their bodies and maintaining good positioning. They did this successfully enough to the tune of a 4-2 victory.

Wolverines coach Mel Pearson understands other teams’ tendencies, especially against his talented squad.

“We’re going to see that a lot, teams just pack it in,” Pearson said. “As the game wore on, we got better getting to the net, but we were playing a little too individualistic. Guys would hold onto the puck too much instead of give and go and beat guys.”

Efforts from players like senior forward Luke Morgan were instrumental in the Wolverines’ forechecking scheme tonight. Early in the second period, Morgan was grinding down in Wisconsin’s corners. He won a fight for the puck and eventually, senior forward Jimmy Lambert possessed it. He was unable to find sophomore forward Brendan Brisson — who was wide open in the slot for his signature one-timer opportunity. That play didn’t define the game, but it was a microcosm of Michigan’s struggles.

The forecheck was excellent. All four lines of forwards and even the defensemen were active, bullying their way to the puck and setting up in the offensive zone. But, mostly due to the Badgers’ shutdown defense, they weren’t able to generate many scoring looks. 

“I didn’t think we were getting it to the net enough in the first 40 minutes of the game,” senior forward Jimmy Lambert said. “If we did get it to the net, we didn’t really have anyone there to collect rebounds or puck retrievals in the corners.”

Even on the typically outstanding power play, the Wolverines had a difficult time finding the net. Brisson was robbed of a goal by a blocked shot from a Wisconsin defenseman. Despite the opportunities, there always seemed to be a wall of red guarding the crease.

In the rare instances when Badger goaltender Cameron Rowe was challenged, he rose to the occasion. His plethora of sprawling and acrobatic saves held Michigan to only two goals, propelling Wisconsin to the upset victory. As the Wolverines maintain their national spotlight, except other teams to give them their best game.

“Everyone knows who we are, everyone has high expectations for us and we have high expectations for ourselves,” Lambert said. “Man to man, I just think that we have to be better because it’s Big Ten time.”

Seniors like Lambert have been through the wringer a few times now, but for the rest of the team, lessons like tonight will prove invaluable during the postseason. If Michigan wants to compete for a national championship, they will need to perform for 60 minutes, not just play desperate catchup.

Pearson added: “We just have to start with that urgency on the drop of the puck. We have to continue to play with that urgency from the get-go.”