OMAHA – As he waited for the bus heading back to the team hotel on Saturday night, Michigan senior goaltender Noah Ruden gazed up at the Omaha Civic Auditorium scoreboard and saw the 4-4 tie Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha skated to an hour earlier.
When he looked at that score he could only shake his head and wonder.
What happened to the two-goal third-period lead?
What happened to second place in the CCHA?
And what happened to the team that began the season 9-1-1 and at one point held the No. 1 ranking in the country?
In a scene that has become typical of Michigan’s late-season struggles, the game began to slip away when Michigan (13-9-4 CCHA, 18-12-4 overall) took two costly penalties.
With the Wolverines clinging to a 4-2 lead in the second period, penalties by junior Matt Hunwick and freshman Jack Johnson gave the Mavericks a 5-on-3 power play opportunity. After killing the two-man advantage, Michigan gave up a power play goal just eight seconds before the team would have returned to full strength.
“When we took those penalties, it took the momentum away on our end,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said.
The two teams battled throughout the third period, but with just over two minutes remaining in the contest, Maverick defenseman Phil Angell ripped a slap shot from just inside the blue line and beat Ruden for the game-tying goal.
Even after the Mavericks’ fourth tally, the Wolverines had a golden opportunity to secure a win, when Nebraska-Omaha forward Dan Charleston committed a holding penalty with 1:23 remaining.
But in what has become a familiar scene for Michigan recently, the power play created very few quality chances, and the Wolverines came up empty.
Combined with its 4-3 loss on Friday night, Michigan’s tie put it third in the CCHA standings, trailing second-place Michigan State by two points. With a win on Saturday night, the Wolverines would have clinched a first-round bye in the CCHA playoffs.
“We’re not making it easy on ourselves right now,” senior captain Andrew Ebbett said. “We’ve got to get home ice. That’s our number one goal right now.”
In contrast to the disheartening finish, it looked like the Wolverines were set to get back on track as Saturday’s contest began.
Just six minutes into the opening period, sophomore forward Chad Kolarik slid a wrap- around shot by Nebraska-Omaha goalie Jared Kaufmann to give Michigan a 1-0 lead.
Ten minutes later Kolarik skated into the Maverick offensive zone and fired a slap shot at the net. The shot was blocked, but the rebound fell right to Ebbett, who fired his own slap shot for the second goal of the night.
Nebraska-Omaha (12-9-5, 18-11-5) never held a lead in Saturday’s game, but the Wolverines never could seal the deal.
“We’re not getting the breaks, and we left them opportunities to come back in the game,” Ebbett said. “We had our chances to bury them, and we left them in.”
On Friday night, the Wolverines erased a 3-0 third-period deficit, only to see its effort go for naught when the Mavericks responded with a goal of their own just six seconds after Michigan tied the game.
Coming out of the weekend with just one point leaves the Wolverines in serious danger of missing the NCAA Tournament altogether. Michigan has put up a mediocre 9-11-3 record since its impressive start. And this weekend’s series was a microcosm of the Wolverines’ recent struggles. Michigan played well at some points but was unable to piece together any consistency.
“Sometimes we don’t do anything right and other times we do everything right,” said Kolarik following Michigan’s latest setback.