NEW YORK — The stage was set, the lights were bright and the crowd full.
The No. 19 Michigan men’s hockey team was coming off a dominant 3-1 victory just three days earlier against Bowling Green that saw the Wolverines out play and out power the Falcons all night.
Then Michigan squared off against No. 13 Cornell in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. The Wolverines seemed to have enough momentum following the Bowling Green victory to turn around what has been a season that's been poor at best thus far.
But in front of the sea of red that faced them in the form of the Cornell fan base, maybe the lights were too bright, the crowd too loud, or the Wolverines just too inconsistent. Michigan lost 5-1 on Saturday, and in somewhat of an embarrassing fashion to the Big Red.
Either way, the Wolverines need to start showing why they were they were the nation’s preseason third-ranked team.
Sure, Michigan has faced adversity this season. Junior defenseman Jon Merrill, who was expected to lead a very strong defensive corps, went out early in the season with a spinal injury leaving the blue liners youthful and weakened. And the goalie position has been a constant question mark as freshmen Steve Racine and Jared Rutledge have been struggling while splitting time in net — though Racine has had the edge as of late.
These are just factors that might hurt a little bit, but they shouldn’t be excuses for the team’s poor play.
Spanning back to Oct. 26, the Wolverines are 2-6-1 in their last nine games. This stretch has seen Michigan allow 3.3 goals per game. All season, the Wolverines have been struggling to find consistency as well as an identity. Though both junior defenseman Mac Bennett and senior defenseman Lee Moffie are assistant captains, neither have been the strong anchor that the corps needs.
But the inconsistencies don’t stop with the defense. The Wolverines’ 3.58 goals per game might be the sixth-best in the nation, but when a big goal is needed or the game is tied, Michigan never seems to get it. Even in the loss to Cornell, Bennett notched the Wolverines first goal in the third period, but they trailed 4-0. With 9:25 left in the game, Bennett’s goal was nice for the stat sheet, but ultimately had no effect on the game.
“We’re just not good enough right now,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We cannot out-skill or out-score our mistakes.”
There’s no question that inconsistencies have plagued Michigan all season. Whether the power play, penalty kill, defensive-zone coverage, missed assignment or even goalie issues, the excuses need to stop. Once or twice, missed assignments can be damaging to any team. But when the miscues happen frequently, it’s not an excuse — just a problem.
During the Cornell press conference, senior goalie Andy Iles talked about how the Big Red’s victory was ultimately attributed to playing “Cornell hockey.” This parallels what Berenson typically tells his team — if they play Michigan hockey, success will come with it.
Right now, the problem is that Michigan is plagued by a combination of ill-timed mistakes and defensive problems. And the Wolverines don't capitalize on scoring chances when a goal is needed, either. Instead of taking the Cornell game and using it as an impetus for a hot streak, Michigan will take it as more material for an already-filled drawing board.
There’s no doubt that Michigan is struggling. Whether it’s the Wolverines’ loss to the Big Red or the sweep by Notre Dame at Yost Ice Arena, something needs to change — the excuses need to stop.
But if there’s one person who can possibly right a floundering ship, it’s Berenson. He has been at the helm for 29 seasons, and certainly knows that adversity and struggles come with the job.
“I think we’re going to be a good team by the end of the year, but right now, we take a step forward and a big step backwards,” he said following Saturday’s loss.
Yes, the bright lights of Madison Square Garden might have illuminated more problems with this Michigan team, but they are fixable. There’s still time to get back on track. The Wolverines have traditionally been late bloomers, and they need to do just that. When they do, Michigan’s excuses will turn into it’s reasons for success.