MINNEAPOLIS – Having come back from two separate two-goal deficits in Friday night’s win, Michigan was far from out of Saturday night’s contest against Minnesota while sitting in Mariucci Arena’s visitors’ locker room during the second intermission.
The Wolverines trailed 3-1 and had seized their first semblance of momentum late in the middle frame. Alternate captain T.J. Hensick outskated Golden Gophers captain Mike Vannelli and glided to a breakaway marker with 6:54 remaining in the period.
But what transpired during the final stanza of the Golden Gophers’ 8-2 demolition was unprecedented in recent years of Michigan hockey. The Wolverines surrendered five goals, including two short-handed, in a matter of 20 seconds, and were left with heads hanging low for the 600-mile trip home.
“We just flat-out got beat,” sophomore defenseman Jack Johnson said. “They beat us in pretty much every aspect of the game. We played the best team in the country right now, and, obviously, we have a long way to go to get there.”
After Minnesota scored early in the third, Hensick’s linemate, junior Kevin Porter, helped keep Michigan’s hopes alive with a goal three minutes later. But that was when the highlights ended for the Wolverines.
The Golden Gophers scored just one minute later, and again 20 seconds after that. Both goals were the result of opportunistic Minnesota forwards being in the right place at the right time and deadly mistakes by Michigan’s defensemen.
“Minnesota worked hard for everything that they got,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “But on our side of the ledger, we have to play better. We have to take care of the puck, and we have to play better defensively.”
Once the hosts had a four-goal lead, Michigan’s play slid further downhill. Even when the Wolverines generated shots on Minnesota goaltender Kellen Briggs, the Golden Gophers seemed to anticipate Michigan’s next move and forced turnovers at the blue line.
The Michigan miscues resulted in odd-man rushes that forced Wolverines’ goaltender Billy Sauer to make a career-high 44 saves on the same night that he gave up a career-high eight goals.
A few flashes of brilliance by Hensick, Porter and Johnson in a last-ditch effort couldn’t help Michigan find the back of the net, allowing the game to get out of hand.
“We had a lot of guys play well,” Berenson said. “That’s how much better Minnesota was tonight than we were, and then the momentum just took over the game. The puck started to go in no matter what they did.”
Saturday’s abysmal third period stood in stark contrast to the Wolverines’ resilient Friday comeback against Wisconsin. Instead of collapsing under the pressure of a hostile crowd, Michigan took the lead during the final period with a pair of goals by David Rohlfs and Andrew Cogliano just 30 seconds apart.
Paired with the two-goal deficit the Wolverines overcame against Nebraska-Omaha on Nov. 10, comebacks were the trend for Michigan prior to Saturday’s collapse.
“I think we have a pretty resilient team this season,” said Michigan captain Matt Hunwick after the victory in Madison. “You’ve seen it in past games – against Omaha we were down 2-0. I feel like we have the ability to score goals, so if we can tighten up our defense, we’ll have a chance to win.”
According to Johnson, whether Saturday’s game is the new trend or an anomaly will undoubtedly determine the course of the Wolverines’ season.
“We don’t really want to erase this memory completely because we’ve got to learn from it,” Johnson said. “We need to try and build on it. The Gophers are a hell of a team, and we’ve got to try to become as good as them by the end of the year.”