BIG RAPIDS — It’s funny how much the Michigan hockey team likes December.
Go back to last season, when a Wolverine squad in the midst of a familiar fall slump trekked to Alaska during the first weekend of December. Friday night loss, then a Saturday night win. Commence a Michigan tear through the remainder of the month that culminated in a Great Lakes Invitational title.
Now back to the present day. Michigan, severely underperforming, visited Ferris State for a series that straddled November and December. Friday night loss, Saturday night shootout win.
November is like a time bomb. Michigan knows the number of games in the first half of the season is waning and that it has to get on better CCHA footing before a difficult second half kicks in.
Michigan coach Red Berenson is good at avoiding the panic zone when the team falters. The players? It’s trickier. It’s been clear to see how easily the team has gotten down on itself during games — how a one-goal deficit has turned into two, then three, then five, with the Wolverines rarely coming back to put a point on the board.
So when the calendar changed this weekend, it seemed Michigan’s game plan also changed from Friday to Saturday night.
“I thought we played harder and better,” Berenson said. “Even though they got some momentum at times in the game, our team hung in there.”
It started with putting together a full 60 minutes. Though walking away from Saturday night with two points instead of three wasn’t ideal, the players still celebrated like they had won the whole weekend. When things don’t go your way, everything gets magnified, and two points look a lot better than none.
Instead of having only one strong period on Saturday, Michigan had three — you don’t make it to a sudden-death shootout without everyone on the team pulling their weight.
The defense put in more effort to clear the zone and clear out the crease to assist freshman goalie Steve Racine when the Bulldogs swarmed the goal. The offense finally started firing on multiple cylinders, with the three goals each coming from different players.
Oh, and don’t discredit the magic of puck luck, either. Just ask Racine about the shot he stopped on the goal line between a post and a player’s skate. The Wolverines haven’t had that kind of luck lately.
“For us to come back and establish the weekend with a tie (and) shootout win is big for us,” said senior forward A.J. Treais. “I think that everyone’s just all in right now. Everyone’s playing defense … everyone’s bought into the system now.”
And then there’s mentality.
It’s not all about staying clear-headed, though that does have a lot to do with the Wolverines’ performance — off-ice mindsets have just as much to do with it.
Just look at sophomore Alex Guptill, one of Michigan’s staple forwards, who didn’t even make the trip to Big Rapids.
Berenson said he wasn’t happy with Guptill’s “day-to-day approach to the game, the team, his work ethic and his performance.” Is it hard scratching someone who should be a top scorer while less productive forwards see ice time? Yeah. But for a team that has lacked the mental conditioning to make it through a game, Berenson needed someone that was all in. His gamble of a better attitude trumping a less effective player didn’t hurt on Saturday.
Does this weekend mark the turning point in the Wolverines’ underachieving season? Perhaps. An upcoming bye week gives Michigan extra practice time to readjust before playing Western Michigan.
But the best thing about facing the Broncos? It will still be December. And maybe the Wolverines can hold on to that December magic that’s been so good to them before.
— Vukelich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LizVukelich