By Jess Myers
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Like that well-meaning aunt that keeps sending you a beautifully-wrapped pair of socks each Christmas, the Minnesota Gophers are trying to smile and stay thankful for what they’re getting. Even if it’s seemingly the same mildly disappointing thing every game lately.
For the third consecutive outing the Gophers took a higher-ranked opponent to overtime. For the third straight game they relied on goalie Mat Robson to forge an official tie. And for the third straight game they surrendered a 3-on-3 goal, dropping a 3-2 decision and an extra point in the conference standings on Friday, Dec. 7.
This time it was Michigan’s Josh Norris scoring on a breakaway in the final seconds the 3-on-3 extra session for the Wolverines, who entered the weekend ranked 15th nationally. But in this holiday season, the Gophers’ new coach is staying optimistic and trying to head into the coming 20-day break with a smile.
“I really liked what we did. We’re on the road in a pretty great environment and we took control in the second period,” Bob Motzko said. “I’m not critical of our guys. You have to learn how to win tight games.”
The Gophers (4-6-4 overall, 2-2-3-0 Big Ten), got second-period goals from Sammy Walker and Rem Pitlick along with 39 saves from Robson, but saw their winless streak extended to four games. Robson faced a heavy workload once again, as the Wolverines out-shot Minnesota 18-5 in the third period. With 12.1 seconds left in the 3-on-3 period, he was beaten low by a Norris wrist shot.
Will Lockwood and Luke Morgan scored in regulation for Michigan (6-6-4, 2-3-4-2). It was the Gophers’ third consecutive overtime game. Because all three went to 3-on-3 overtime, all of them counting as ties for their official overall record.
“I thought we had just an OK game,” said Wolverines coach Mel Pearson, who got the extra standings point but has now gone five games without an official win. “It’s grinding hockey. You don’t get a lot of good scoring opportunities and the ones we did we missed the net or we overpassed. We need to simplify our game.”
Hoping to avoid an end-to-end track meet in the raucous atmosphere of Yost Ice Arena, the Gophers limited Michigan’s first period offense, but surrendered the only goal of the opening frame when Will Lockwood slipped a shot through traffic and between Robson’s knees.
The visitors turned the tables in the latter half of the second, scoring a pair of goals in less than two minutes to put the Wolverines back on their heels. They tied the game on a classic scramble at the goalmouth, with four players and Wolverines goalie Strauss Mann all frantically digging at the loose puck. Walker, who was behind the goalie in the crease, managed to finally slip the puck over the goal line, and after an officials review, the play stood as called.
Pitlick tied the game on his team-leading seventh goal of the season, flipping a backhand shot past Mann while posted at the left side of the net, after a pass across the front of the goalmouth by defenseman Jack Sadek. Pitlick won’t take much credit for his scoring success.
“Linemates and good passes, all the credit to them,” he said. “I want to score at the end in overtime. All credit to the linemates, but we need to find ways to win.”
But the Wolverines forged a 2-2 tie late in the second when Luke Morgan fooled Robson with a shot. Walker just missed an opportunity to give the Gophers a lead early in the third, shooting wide of the net on a breakaway.
“I had him beat, I just lost the puck into the corner,” Walker said. “It’s kind of frustrating. We’re having solid games and we’re playing well, we’re just not closing the games off right now.”
Mann had 27 saves for the Wolverines.