- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Jeremy Summitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 29, 2013
After Friday’s overtime loss to Western Michigan, JT Compher sauntered down the tunnel with his hands on top of his head and his fingers laced. As he approached the Michigan hockey team’s locker room, the freshman forward thrust his hands downward in an exasperating fashion.
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Senior captain Mac Bennett was way ahead of him, essentially power walking to somehow escape what had just unfolded.
The holiday season wasn’t supposed to end this way, especially not after a great beam of light, or good news in this case, broke through the thick, overcast backdrop of Comerica Park during the Wolverines’ afternoon skate on Thursday.
For No. 3 Michigan, the outlook for the Great Lakes Invitational was questionable just a week ago as Compher, along with forwards Tyler Motte and Andrew Copp, were supposed to miss the GLI while participating in the World Junior Championships for team USA in Sweden.
But Compher’s injured foot healed quick enough, and Motte returned home in time from Sweden after being cut just over 24 hours from the start of the GLI, for both to help their team capture the title against a few inferior opponents.
The cheerful narrative had a twist ending, though, and lots of them.
Forward Shane Berschbach, who scored Western Michigan’s first goal, stood in front of Zach Nagelvoort’s crease unmarked so long he could have asked the freshman goaltender what he received for Christmas. Just one of many defensive miscues.
The offense, which hardly showed more potency than a virgin margarita, was so out of sync that Michigan failed to record a shot on goal during any moment of 5-on-5 play in the first period.
You’d think the weekend would just straighten itself out after an eventually heartbreaking defeat in the final minute of overtime Friday, but that didn’t happen either. Even with a consolation game against lowly Michigan State the next afternoon, the offense looked lost without Copp in a 3-0 defeat.
It was bad, and arguably the worst two-game stretch of the season. Compher had a right to be irritated, and Bennett had a reason for his uncharacteristically concise, short-winded responses to post game questions.
“It was frustrating," Bennett said. “That’s for sure.”
That’s what a loss feels like, but these two uncharacteristic routs have come at an appropriate time for the Wolverines. They came into the GLI flying high with a sterling 10-2-2 record and five game unbeaten streak. A team with 10 freshmen needed to get knocked down to earth a bit.
“We got humbled, said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We weren’t that good coming in, and we’re worse coming out.”
Michigan will now have 13 days to prepare for the heart of its conference schedule, but it’s better to get punched in the gut now than in the midst of a Big Ten title race. And yes, this team is still more than capable of capturing that honor.
Over these next two weeks, the Wolverines will have to find answers to missed scoring chances, defensive zone coverage, the power play and getting the puck out the defensive zone better.
Ever since freshman defenseman Kevin Lohan tore his anterior cruciate ligament on Nov. 1, the defense has been thin and suspect at times, turning the puck over too many times.
Burying chances has also been a problem since the early stages of the season, and the amount of times Michigan hit the post, crossbar and the opposing goaltenders glove on point blank chances couldn’t be counted on only one hand.
For a power play that used to rank among the top-10 in the country, a 0-for-9 clip with the man advantage in two games is disappointing. Zero goals in the past four games on the power play isn’t going to get the job done.
“We’ve got to get our work boots on and get back to work,” Berenson said. “It’s too bad we don’t play next week, but that’s the way it is.”
The Wolverines didn’t make any excuses about missing Copp or how the ice conditions were, at best, lackluster on Friday. They knew they had an awful two-game stretch, and that’s good. These losses hurt badly, that much was clear. And that’s also good, because they should have.
Most importantly, the second-youngest team in the country is learning what losing feels like. Its response to this weekend will be the most telling.
So for the Michigan fans that were decked out with maize pom poms and throwback hockey sweaters staring deep into the stained concrete around the concourse after a rough weekend, pick your head up and remember it's just December.
The cheerful narrative hasn’t been fully illustrated yet, because things are just getting put into place. Please, take your hands off your head and relax. This weekend might turn out to be less of a headache than one might assume.