Goalie play has been a strength of the Wolverines this season, but on Saturday night in State College, two soft goals in the first 11:24 of the game doomed Michigan in a 4-0 loss to Penn State.
"I've always said, some nights the puck goes in and some nights it doesn't. Tonight it was the other way around. The puck went in for them and it did not go in for us," head coach Red Berenson said. "Their goalie played better than our goalie and that was the game."
The victory was the Nittany Lions' first in Big Ten action, ending a nine-game losing streak in conference play in this the inaugural year of the league.
For U-M, the defeat was crippling, leaving the Maize and Blue six points back of first-place Minnesota and two behind Wisconsin. Even though Michigan has 10 games remaining in the Big Ten, these were three critical points it had to have in its pursuit of the Golden Gophers for the conference crown.
Freshman netminder Zach Nagelvoort has been tremendous for the Wolverines this year, entering play with a .935 save percentage and a 1.98 goals against average, but he surrendered three goals on nine shorts before Berenson pulled him for sophomore Steve Racine.
Zach Saar's goal at 5:31 of the first and David Glen's at 11:24 both came from bad angles along the end line, but both managed to sneak under Nagelvoort, who hugged the posts but wasn't square to the puck. At 13:17, Casey Bailey made it 3-0 when his slow wrister from the slot beat Nagelvoort five-hole.
Michigan's defensive-zone coverage was porous and the Wolverines certainly didn't do their goalie any favors in the first period, but the soft goals had a far more damaging effect - putting U-M's entire lot of skaters on their heels and creating an uneasiness in their play. Michigan looked like its 2013 version that couldn't play aggressive because of a lack of confidence in its goaltenders.
Racine helped stabilize the situation (recording 30 saves before allowing a goal late), and the Maize and Blue picked up their aggressiveness, dictating play for most of the second period and third, but akin to its 0-4-0 stretch in late December and early January, Michigan couldn't put its best chances in.
With the loss, U-M's five-game unbeaten streak (4-0-1) came to an end, while the manner in which Nagelvoort and Racine performed puts the goalie battle up for debate again after Nagelvoort had seemingly won the job with eight straight starts.
"It's not my decision who plays in net. All I can do is play my best when I get in there," Racine said.
Michigan will travel to Minneapolis Feb. 14-15 for an important two-game series with the Golden Gophers. U-M, which has two games in hand against both Minnesota and Wisconsin, needs at least a split to stay in the Big Ten race.