For the past two weeks, the Michigan hockey team has played like the third period doesn’t matter.

Brian Merlos
After losing third-period leads in three of its last four games, the Michigan hockey team knows it must refocus mentally in the final 20 minutes if it hopes to stay atop the CCHA standings. (RODRIGO GAYA/Daily)

The problem is, it’s probably cost the Wolverines three points in the CCHA standings.

In their last four games, against Miami (Ohio) last weekend and Northern Michigan the previous week, Michigan is 1-0-3. But the Wolverines led in the third period of all four games before being outscored by 6-2 in the third period of all three games and settling for three ties.

Michigan’s third-period struggles were highlighted against Miami last Friday, when the Wolverines were held without a shot for the first 16 minutes. In that span, the RedHawks – who were losing 4-0 coming into the period – outshot Michigan 11-0 and scored twice.

The Wolverines were too busy collecting penalties to put together plays. Michigan had eight penalties for a total of 35 penalty minutes in the period (including a 10-minute and a game misconduct). After coming in with a four-goal deficit, the RedHawks were well on their way to a comeback.

“Is that mental fatigue? Is that physical fatigue? I can’t put my finger on it,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “But you can’t be giving up two-goal leads . your goals are too precious. We’ve got to be a better team in the third period.”

Despite Berenson’s uncertainty, freshman defenseman Tristin Llewellyn had a definite answer. He said mental lapses, not a lack of conditioning, caused Michigan’s deterioration in the third period.

Defenseman Scooter Vaughan called his team’s recent performance in the third period “lackadaisical.” After having late leads against Miami in both games last weekend, complacency set in – and that’s when the former No. 1 team capitalized.

“It feels a lot more laid back,” Llewellyn said. “Yeah, there’s a sense of urgency, but it’s almost like our players have a switch. A lot of times, they just turn it off when we get that big of a lead.”

Llewellyn said Michigan has had trouble covering men in the defensive zone. And it can’t help that the Wolverines have been trying offensive plays they probably wouldn’t when the game is close.

But their experiments have led to dramatic momentum shifts.

Though the Wolverines threatened to collapse against Miami in both third periods, their third-period woes were most shocking against Northern Michigan. In October, Michigan defeated Northern Michigan twice in Marquette. But on the Wolverines’ home ice, sandwiched between high-profile series against Michigan State and Miami, the Northern games were expected to give the Wolverines a relatively easy four points.

But after skating to a lackluster 3-3 tie on Feb. 2, Michigan led 3-1 in the second period the following night and carried a one-goal lead into the third. The Wolverines couldn’t score again, but the Wildcats completed a comeback – and, for them, a successful weekend – by knotting the score and ending with another 3-3 tie.

After the game, a visibly upset Chad Kolarik addressed his team’s collapse.

“We were too loose in the locker room,” Kolarik said. “Our team likes to be loose, but not that loose. We took it for granted, and they took it to us.”

And two weeks later, the Wolverines are still vehement – they need to increase the level of intensity in the third period.

“We had a mental breakdown because we were thinking, ‘All right. We already beat them up there (in Marquette), we got a lead, we don’t have much to worry about,’ ” Llewellyn said, looking back at the Northern series. “But it came back to bite us in the ass. It comes down to the mental part.”

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