ST. PAUL – It wasn’t pretty.
But it didn’t need to be.
In front of almost 15,000 hostile Minnesota fans Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center, a young and inexperienced Michigan hockey team battled back from an early two-goal deficit only to lose 4-3 in the championship game of the Ice Breaker Invitational to tournament host, No. 5 Minnesota.
The Golden Gophers (2-0) were clearly the more athletic team, and that was most apparent in the first period. While each team tallied nine shots in the first stanza, Minnesota’s were much more well-timed and planned, resulting in two goals.
Midway through the first, Gopher defenseman R.J. Anderson took the puck near the blue line and ripped a shot past Michigan goaltender Billy Sauer to give the Gophers a 1-0 advantage. The Wolverines couldn’t find their rhythm in the first period and looked timid at times against the more physical Gophers.
But all of that changed after the first intermission.
The Wolverines (1-1) came out with more intensity, and Minnesota felt it – on the receiving end of hard-hitting open-ice and board checks. The new, physical strategy put the Gophers on their heels, allowing Michigan to claw back into the game.
The Wolverines gained a little momentum with each big hit, and midway through the period, freshman Matt Rust found a rebounded shot in the crease and poked it in to cut the deficit to one.
“I thought in the first period, they definitely outplayed us,” Rust said. “They outworked us, they outhit us, and that’s how they got all of their momentum. So I felt like, and coach also let us know, that we had to come out hitting and come out working and get some offensive-zone playing and put them back on their heels. I think that allowed us to get that first goal and get things rolling.”
Slowly, the added pressure the Wolverines put on Minnesota wore the Gophers down, and the gap in athleticism was diminished by Michigan’s physicality.
But the Wolverines couldn’t seal the deal.
On three separate occasions, the Wolverines battled back to close the gap to one goal, but each time Minnesota closed the door on the potential Michigan comeback.
With two minutes remaining in regulation and the Wolverines down a man because of a Rust holding penalty, the score sat at 4-3. Sauer was pulled, and a furious attack of the Minnesota net ensued. Goalie Jeff Frazee was shoved head first into the net with the puck underneath him. It was Michigan’s last legitimate scoring opportunity, and Minnesota held on for the hard-fought 4-3 victory. The win gives the Golden Gophers six consecutive victories over the Wolverines.
“We gave up inopportune goals at inopportune times,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “You have to give the other team credit, but we know we can do a better job defensively. Yet I like the way our young team battled back and they got back in the game. We had our chances and we just didn’t quite connect.”
Not all of Michigan’s upset dreams were dashed over the weekend, though. Friday night, the Wolverines notched a thrilling 4-3 overtime victory over No. 2 Boston College (1-1).
Using the same style of play that helped them climb back into the Minnesota game, the Wolverines came out physical and scrappy, diving for loose pucks and defensive deflections.
Michigan may not have the big names or reputations that it has had in the past, but if the Wolverines play well defensively, they’ll give themselves opportunities to win, Berenson said.
“I told you all along: I thought our team was pretty good,” Berenson said. “We should get better, but games like this are a great experience for these young players to play in.”