In a game in which a Big Ten title was ultimately won Friday night at Yost Ice Arena, the action lived up to the crowning of a champion. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, they could only hang their heads in frustration as they watched Minnesota celebrate following a 3-2 loss to the Gophers.
This one stings.
Michigan, desperate for a big win to solidify an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, did everything right, but the end result was the same as 11 other contests this season - a loss - and it puts the Maize and Blue in a must-win situation Saturday night.
"Our players are discouraged, obviously," said head coach Red Berenson. "You would be too if you gave everything you had, played maybe your best game of the year and you came up short at the end. But they're resilient and tomorrow is another day and another game.
"They should take a lot of the positives out of this game and then rebuild tomorrow and regroup."
Michigan dominated the first five minutes of this one, displaying a sense of urgency that has largely been missing during the second half of the season. However, Minnesota struck first at 9:20 when a point shot from defenseman Brady Skjei knuckled past U-M netminder Zach Nagelvoort.
It looked then that it might be one of those nights, but the Maize and Blue would not fold this time, answering with back-to-back goals at 12:36 and 18:02 of the first period.
Rookie Evan Allen struck first when his shot parallel to the goal line hit off the back of Gopher goalie Adam Wilcox and into the net. Then sophomore Andrew Copp showed off his determination, outracing defender Ben Marshall to the front of the net for a redirection goal off a pass from rookie Tyler Motte.
"You kind of saw something similar to our first game of the year against BC -- we were relentless, on the forecheck and even coming back into our zone wave after wave to take away their time and space," said Copp. "The way we played tonight was the way we should be playing."
Minnesota tied it at 2-2 17:52 into the second period on a rifle of a shot off the stick of centerman Justin Kloos.
The two teams traded outstanding chances in the third but neither could slip one in. While U-M needed a win, a tie would have helped a little (at least more than a loss) and Michigan was poised to grab it until senior forward Derek DeBlois was called for hooking at 1:55 of the extra session on a call that sent the Yost crowd into fits.
Less than a minute into the man-advantage, the Gophers struck - forward Kyle Rau lifting a rebound over Nagelvoort for the game-winner in clinching the Big Ten regular-season championship.
In the immediate aftermath, the Wolverines lingered, their heads slumped as they looked like a team that had just lost a crucial playoff series. But Berenson offered encouragement in the post-game locker room, knowing a sullen team cannot do what his team must on Saturday.
"Coach came in right after the game and said 'That was a sign we can play with that team, and beat that team,'" said senior captain Mac Bennett, who returned to the ice after missing four games due to injury. "We played them hard. We just didn't end up on the side that we wanted to."
"We matched their intensity, their puck touches, the physicality," Berenson added. "They're a top team and we played really well in the first half of the game. We didn't play as well in the second period but got back to our game in the third. The biggest thing is our team knows we can play against the first-place team. We didn't get the outcome we wanted but that's hockey.
"We were good. I liked our defense; I liked our goalie. We had a couple of opportune chances and didn't score. They get a rebound goal in overtime. But I liked our team. If we played like that every night we wouldn't be sitting where we are. They brought some good hockey out of us and we have to find it again."
As of press time (9:30 pm) with a few more games to be decided, Michigan sat 15th in the Pairwise, its NCAA bid in peril. Yes, the Maize and Blue will have another chance even if they fall Saturday night (the Big Ten Tournament starts March 20 and the winner receives an automatic bid) but the series finale with the Gophers is as must-win as they come.
"We want to win and this night proves we can do that," Bennett finished.