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March 20, 2014

Hockey falls to Penn State, postseason in jeopardy

Michigan's maddeningly frustrating hockey season added another chapter Friday afternoon and it was probably the last chapter for this season, with a 2-1 double-overtime loss to Penn State likely costing U-M its at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.

"Well, it was an endurance contest, obviously," head coach Red Berenson said. "We knew it would be a hard-fought game and it would be a close game. Penn State, I thought, was the better team for at least half the game, then we started to play better and got more chances. We actually got better in the overtime. But our goalie had to play well to give us a chance and their goalie had to play well to keep us at bay when we had our chances."

The Wolverines went 2-3 this season against the worst team in the Big Ten (7-25-2 entering play today), and will likely be kicking themselves when the NCAA announces its 16-team field Sunday morning.

"I'm disappointed, obviously. We've been on kind of a bubble here the last few weeks. We didn't help ourselves tonight," Berenson said, noting his players were distraught in the post-game locker room. "They're very disappointed, devastated. The one thing I can tell you, our team was not overconfident coming into this because we had hard-fought games coming into this, they've beaten us twice in four games. We're disappointed we didn't play well and win. It's all about winning this time of year."

Michigan may have lost by only one in this contest, but the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal was, arguably, their poorest game of the year considering the ramifications (win and they were in NCAAs, lose and they were out) and the way U-M competed for the first 50 minutes until tying the game at 1-1.

The Maize and Blue played with greater desperation in the first and second overtimes, but it wasn't enough as their best chances were turned aside over and over again by PSU netminder Matthew Skoff (52 saves).

Michigan lost this one in those first two periods, playing with a lack of intensity in allowing the Nittany Lions to dictate pace. The Maize and Blue looked nothing like the team that went 1-1 against No. 1 Minnesota a week ago, and could have swept.

That team would have blown Penn State out of the building but despite the Wolverines' promise this week that they had learned their lesson, finally, they did not come close to skating with the sense of urgency required to dominate PSU.

Instead, Penn State badly outshot Michigan in each of the first three periods and outplayed U-M. If not for rookie goalie Zach Nagelvoort Michigan may have found itself down by three or four goals by the third as he turned aside 44 shots in regulation and 63 for the game.

In the second half of the season, the Wolverines suffered from poor defense, average goaltending and an inability to put the puck in the net. Two of the three - defense and offense - reared their head again Thursday, with only goalie play meeting expectations.

The defensemen continually turned the puck over deep or were beaten on rushes in situations where the numbers - 2-on-2 for instance - were more than fair. Time and again, Nagelvoort bailed out his teammates.

Meanwhile, the offense, as the forwards have done too frequently this year, did not shoot to score but seemed content just to put pucks on the net, while quite consistently they passed on their best chances simply to look for the perfect tic-tac-toe opportunity that rarely materialized.

Still, there were a few chances, with a backhand shot at 12:30 of the first overtime spinning 3/4 across the PSU goal line only to be kicked aside before it was ruled the game-winning goal. In the second overtime, moments before Penn State scored, U-M had two more golden opportunities on one-timers in the slot, but both times they shot into Skoff's chest.

In the end, PSU scored on a quick shot from Zach Saar off a faceoff at 12:47 of the second OT on a shot that seemed to jump on Nagelvoort before he even recognized it had been unleashed.

The end result was an early exit from a postseason conference tournament the Maize and Blue talked about winning earlier this week, and one that they very well could have if they competed the way they had against the Gophers last weekend.

The second end result is likely missing the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row, following a 22-year streak of bids, largely because the Wolverines played carelessly and without energy against the conference's worst team. And if they don't make the tournament then it's a fate they earned.

"We'll wait and see on Sunday where everything ends up. When you lose a game like this, you can't expect to move up," Berenson said.

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