Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
The battle between #2 Minnesota and #3 Michigan was expected to be one of the marquee match-ups of the Big Ten season between two of the conferences preseason favorites, but illness running through both teams cast a pall over the series. Minnesota was without starting goalie Justin Close and forward Aaron Huglen, who did not travel to Ann Arbor due to illness, but that was nothing compared to Michigan, who was without six players, including the nation’s leading scorer Adam Fantilli, and defenseman Steven Holtz, who was reportedly hospitalized due to illness. Every available Wolverine dressed in Thursday night’s game, including third string goalie Tyler Shea, who dressed as a skater and was listed as a forward on the team’s line chart.
The shorthanded Michigan team put up a fight for nearly two periods, but ultimately ran out of gas, falling 5-2 to Minnesota.
The Golden Gophers struck first when Rhett Pitlick put a perfectly-placed shot into the upper corner of the net from the left circle to give Minnesota the early lead. But Michigan responded on the power play late in the first period when Dylan Duke jammed home a puck in front of the net.
The second period would follow a similar pattern with Pitlick scoring first to put the Gophers ahead and Dylan Duke responding afterwards with a power play goal. Jimmy Snuggerud would score his ninth goal of the season 1:20 after Duke scored to give Minnesota the lead after two periods.
All hopes of a Michigan third period comeback vanished when the Wolverines were given a protocol penalty for not taking the ice in time for the third period. The resulting penalty gave Minnesota a 5×3 advantage, which Logan Cooley converted on. Luke Mittlestadt tacked on another insurance goal and the thin Michigan bench didn’t really have the gas in the tank to mount a serious comeback.
The two teams complete their series on Friday evening.
Notes and Thoughts:
-I guess credit/blame the specter of Mel Pearson, because this had the feel of a game that probably shouldn’t have been played last night, and probably wouldn’t have been if Michigan hadn’t been the subject of a scandal last season where they cancelled a game in which they would have had a full line-up.
(For the record, I don’t buy the argument that because it was a conference game, the sanctity of the standings were what caused this game to be played, especially in this conference.)
There’s not too much Michigan interim head coach Brandon Naurato can say due to medical privacy issues, but you can certainly read between the lines in his post-game press conference last night about the situation they were dealing with:
NAURATO: I’ll say one thing: Brian Brewster, Darryl Conway. The Michigan medical team, Michigan Hospital. I can’t imagine if this was a junior or minor pro team without the resources that we have at Michigan. That’s why they’re the leaders and best. Everyone’s pulled together and done an unbelievable job to take care of these kids. That’s not a plug. It’s real. They saved some guys. It’s a big deal.
On if he was scared for his players:
NAURATO: Yeah, big time. Yeah. Without getting into detail, the first phone call I got, I hope I never get again.
By all indications, it would not be a surprise if Naurato had his interim tag lifted at the end of this season.
-Minnesota took care of business on a night that was pretty much a must-win given the circumstances. They’ve got some guys that can really fire the puck, especially when given a little time and space, which the Michigan defense tends to allow, even under the best of circumstances.
It was also a good opportunity to get back-up Owen Bartoszkiewicz into net a start after two very shaky starts early in the season in which he gave up four goals in each game. Back in his home state, Bartoszkiewicz put up very solid numbers, stopping 29 or 31 and only allowing two power play goals on second-chance opportunities. He likely still has a long ways to go towards proving he’s capable of being a starter one day, but that was at least the first step.