Forget the NCAA Tournament. Forget the Big Ten title. Michigan has bigger problems to worry about. Like beating Penn State. U-M has now lost four straight games overall and two to the last-place Nittany Lions after blowing a 3-1 lead in a 5-4 overtime loss Friday night.
The defeat dropped Michigan to 14-10-3 on the season, and 4-6-1 since Jan. 1. The Wolverines tumbled from 10th to 15th in the Pairwise Rankings, but beyond the numbers, the Maize and Blue were humiliated by a program with two Big Ten victories in 13 contests - both against U-M - in only its second season of varsity hockey.
Michigan jumped out to a torrid start, leading 2-0 just 6:41 into the first period after sophomore Boo Nieves and junior Phil Di Giuseppe ended personal 24- and seven-game scoring slumps. The Wolverines led 3-1 after one period of play, but the lone goal they allowed foreshadowed a consistent problem all night - poor defensive-zone coverage and turnovers in their own end.
"Our D-zone is like a fire sale right now," sophomore alternate captain Andrew Copp said. "Everyone is going every which way. We have to figure it out quickly."
Penn State outshot Michigan 15-11 in the second period and netted the only goal on a power-play marker at 19:25. The Blue and White drew even on a shorthanded goal 3:17 into the third when U-M junior forward Alex Guptill turned the puck over at the blue line and dogged it down the ice as Dylan Richard broke in alone on goalie Zach Nagelvoort, flipping the puck past him.
Guptill went from goat to hero, though, when he appeared to score the game-winner with 2:02 left in the contest, however, with its goalie pulled, and capitalizing off a turnover from senior captain and defenseman Mac Bennett, Penn State tied the game with 4.6 seconds on the clock, sending shockwaves through the Yost Ice Arena crowd and crippling the confidence of the Maize and Blue.
"For us to give up a 3-1 lead at home is tough to swallow," head coach Red Berenson said. "That shorthanded goal was a back breaker against our power play. And then to give up that last-minute goal to tie the game is a tough pill to swallow."
Michigan found a way to rally in OT, putting pressure on netminder Matthew Skoff but when Bennett mishandled the puck in the offensive zone, PSU took off on a 2-on-1 and David Goodwin blasted a slapshot over Nagelvoort's right shoulder for the game-winner at 4:17 of the extra session.
"Our breakdowns really hurt us," Berenson said. "The breakdowns ended up in our net.
"This doesn't come down to talent. This is really hard work and sticking with it, and good defense, hopefully your goalie makes up for your mistakes. Tonight it didn't happen. You can't give up five goals and feel good about your defense or your goalie."
Penn State has now scored four goals or more five times all season, and Michigan has been on the receiving end of two of those contests, losing 4-0 in State College Feb. 8 and 5-4 tonight.
After Berenson spoke, it took longer than usual for the player representatives to emerge from the locker room, and when they did, Copp and Nieves expressed anger and frustration. The Wolverines understand a promising season that started with a 10-2-1 mark and a No. 3 national ranking is going down the drain, and they have to fix it. Now.
"You come to a place as special as this, with all the tradition and legacy, playing for Coach Berenson and for us to putting forth this effort with not even close to enough pride is unacceptable," Copp said. "It starts with me, with [captains] Mac [Bennett] and Derek [DeBlois], our seniors on down. Everyone knows we need to pick it up because this is flat-out unacceptable."