It was asking a lot for Michigan hockey to maintain its 2020 pace through the end of the regular season. Heading into the team's final home series of the year against Notre Dame Feb. 21-22, the Wolverines had only dropped one contest since the start of the New Year - an 8-1-1 run had seen U-M climb into third place in the Big Ten standings.
However, offensive issues that had plagued Michigan (15-14-3 Overall, 10-10-2 Big Ten) early in the first half of the season - U-M averaged 2.3 goals per game in its first 20 contests through Dec. 31 before averaging 4.2 per game during its 10-game stretch of success - returned as it suffered consecutive home defeats to the Fighting Irish (14-12-6, 9-8-5) by scores of 2-1 and 3-0.
“Definitely not the result that we had hoped for or expected,” said Michigan head coach Mel Pearson on ‘Inside the Huddle with Michael Spath’ earlier this week.
“Coming into the weekend we felt good about our team, with some concern about the energy level having to play a Monday night game [against Michigan State in Detroit Feb. 17].
"Our losses were two hard-fought games. We had trouble scoring. Both games went into the third period scoreless. Looking back at it, it’s easy to say that whoever scored first would win the games. I truly believe that. They got the goal. We didn’t. We couldn’t convert on our chances.
"Give a lot of credit to their team. They played hard.”
Notre Dame goalie Cale Morris got the better of Michigan goalie Strauss Mann on both nights, despite impressive play from both. The lone goal allowed by Morris on the weekend was an extra-attacker situation with less than a minute to play in the first game. Morris posted 53 saves between the two games on 54 attempts faced, compared to 51 saves on 56 shots from Mann (.912 save percentage).
“Morris was just a smidge better,” Pearson said. “The first goal that went in on Friday night [for Notre Dame] just sort of squeaked in. When you’re playing a team like Notre Dame, they really went into a defensive mode, more so than when we’d seen them earlier in the year. They were hanging back, waiting for an opportunity or a power-play and it was tough to get to the net.
"We just really had difficulty getting to the net. We tried some things, but to no avail. You need a bounce or a break and we just didn’t seem to get one. Strauss played well, he’s not the reason we lost.
“He gives us a chance every night.”
The two losses will play a looming role in the Wolverines’ chances for a birth in the NCAA tournament. They had put themselves in a solid position heading into the weekend. Now, with only two games at Minnesota left on the regular-season schedule, they might need to win the Big Ten tournament to earn a spot.
[Playing devils advocate, had U-M swept Notre Dame and won a single game at Minnesota this weekend, the Wolverines would have been 11th in the Pairwise Rankings. They wake up today 20th. The Top 16 teams make NCAAs.]
“We do need to win the conference tournament to earn a spot,” Pearson said. “That’s the way that we have to approach it. We’re not talking to our team much about it now. We’d talked about the standings maybe two weeks ago.
"We don’t have a standings board in our locker room. Your players know. As coaches though, you’re just trying to put the emphasis on getting better every day in practice.
"I don’t know if we got too far ahead of ourselves, if our players started looking down the road. You go from controlling your own destiny for a Big Ten Championship and then two games later you’re out of that conversation. You’re just hoping to get home ice now.
“The biggest thing right now is learning from the weekend, getting healthy. We’ve got to find a way through it.”
Michigan is in fifth place in the Big Ten, trailing second-place Minnesota and Ohio State by four points and fourth place Notre Dame by two. The top team in the conference gets a first-round bye while teams 2-4 host a best-of-three postseason series hoping to advance to the semifinals.
With a sweep of the Golden Gophers, the Wolverines will host March 6-8. A split, or worse, and Michigan is likely on the road for the postseason, its Big Ten title and NCAA chances on life support.