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Michigan hockey splits Big Ten-opening series against Wisconsin

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A dominant performance on Thursday was followed by a disappointing one on Friday.

NCAA Hockey: Big Ten Hockey Tournament-Michigan vs Ohio State South Bend Tribune-USA TODAY NETWORK

The Michigan Wolverines’ hockey team’s first Big Ten series of the season featured the Wolverines at their best, and then at their worst.

Just about everything clicked in Thursday’s shutout victory over Wisconsin, Michigan’s first shutout of 2021-22. And then not much clicked in Friday’s loss, during which the Badgers got the bounces they needed in order to steal a split from the No. 3 team in the country.

The score of Thursday’s contest was 3-0, but it easily could have been much worse. Wisconsin goalie Jared Moe absolutely stood on his head, making 38 saves (33 in the first two periods) to keep his team in the game.

But the Wolverines (6-2, 1-1 Big Ten) were the better team throughout. Early in the second period, some nifty passing between defensemen Owen Power and Nick Blankenburg led to a goal by sophomore Kent Johnson, who skated unmarked down the right side and let it fly.

Blankenburg found the net himself towards the end of the period, taking advantage of the swaths of space left open during 4-on-4 play, skating in deep and finishing off a Johnson pass with a backhander.

Michigan finished off the scoring a few minutes into the third when senior forward Jimmy Lambert picked off the puck just on the edge of the Wisconsin zone and laid it off to Power, whose bouncing effort beat Moe to his left side.

Sophomore Erik Portillo was excellent in goal, earning his first career shutout after stopping 28 shots. Neither team did much on special teams — the Wolverines had only one shot in two power-play attempts and the Badgers didn’t capitalize on any of their four.

Wisconsin opened the scoring Friday off a breakaway. Caden Brown caught sophomore defenseman Luke Hughes sleeping and flew past him down the left side before deftly slipping the puck past Portillo. The game remained 1-0 Badgers for over half an hour afterwards, while Cameron Rowe (32 saves) played as well as Moe the night before.

Disaster struck when sophomore Thomas Bordeleau tried to clear the puck from his knees while he was just in front of the crease. Defensemen Ethan Edwards and Jay Keranen had their backs and let Tarek Baker walk right in to intercept Bordeleau’s clearance. It was a truly lousy play that got exactly what it deserved.

Michigan got one back on a remarkable effort by Johnson, who slid the puck between his legs and backhanded it past Rowe at close range to cut the lead to 2-1 with 15 minutes to go. But the Badgers nullified that highlight just 42 seconds later by scoring off a hard rebound.

Freshman Mackie Samoskevich sniped in the Wolverines’ second goal with 10 minutes to play, but Michigan just couldn’t get back to level, and Brock Caufield put it away with an empty-netter in the closing minutes.

For a second straight game, the Wolverines had at least 10 more shots than the Badgers, but this time puck luck wasn’t on their side. Errors such as Hughes being caught in transition and Bordeleau’s lazy clearance attempt didn’t do anything to help matters either. Even displays of talent like Johnson’s goal won’t always be enough to win.

These things were known well in advance, but they’re likely to be front-and-center once again now. A split with Wisconsin at home shouldn’t be reason for Michigan to panic, but it doesn’t inspire worlds of confidence. It’s a pretty ordinary result that leaves the Wolverines more or less right where they were coming in.

Michigan will take on Michigan State (4-3-1, 1-1) this weekend in a home-and-home, with Friday’s game at Yost Ice Arena and Saturday’s game in East Lansing. Both games are at 7:30 p.m. and Friday’s contest will be televised by Big Ten Network.