MD

Sports

Friday, October 24, 2014

Advertise with us »

Liz Vukelich: Let the hockey team enjoy its dance

Erin Kirkland/Daily
Senior defenseman Greg Pateryn has been a rock on the blue line. Buy this photo

By Liz Vukelich, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 20, 2012

After the Michigan hockey team’s win on Saturday night, members of the media waited in the Yost Ice Arena conference room to interview the captains.

It was a senior-night win. Everyone wanted to know about the emotions swirling around the locker room following the team’s last regular season game at Yost.

After a couple of minutes of waiting, Michigan coach Red Berenson emerged and informed reporters that they might have to wait a bit longer before talking to Luke Glendening and Greg Pateryn.

“The team’s doing a dance,” he said. “Some sort of ‘Swedish Shuffle.’ ”

Everyone in the room laughed, and the coach cracked a smile.

Eventually, the captains came out and the interrogation began. What’s the significance of the dance? Is anyone allowed to see? Does Red partake?

The usually stoic Glendening chuckled as he answered the questions. He said it’s a ritual that follows every sweep. No filming or photography of the dance has ever been allowed. And, alas, Red doesn’t even try to break it down with his team.

The mysterious dance is saved for only the most special occasions — it’s a privilege, not a right. And Saturday night certainly was special. Considering that A.J. Treais’ overtime goal kept Michigan in the running as a serious CCHA title contender, Saturday seemed to mark the end of anything negative that’s been dogging the team.

Questions and doubts have followed the Wolverines since last April. When the eight-man class of 2011 took off their sweaters for the last time, everyone wanted to know how Michigan would make up for the lost depth.

Berenson wasn’t concerned. Back in September, he assured the restless minds that the offense would take care of itself, though it may take a little time for a lead scorer to emerge.

Berenson is in his 27th season at the helm — he knows what he’s talking about.

And after this weekend, Treais and Alex Guptill left little doubt in anyone’s mind about which skaters are sitting in the driver’s seat of the forward corps.

It’s not just that they're tied for the team lead in goals — 15 each, for those keeping track at home — but that they’ve proven themselves the most consistent players week after week.

Some of the Wolverines who were hot at the beginning of the year haven’t appeared on the box score in months. Others pride themselves on scoring clutch goals but are quiet the rest of the time.

Not Treais and Guptill — they’ve earned the right to dance with the rest of the team. They’ve eased one burden. But what about the other questions that remained?

Of course, Jon Merrill’s three-month suspension jumps to mind first. Once again, speculators wondered how the defensive corps would fare without one of the country’s top defenseman. And would Merrill even come back?

Berenson downplayed Merrill’s singular importance for the three months he was absent and stayed firm in his belief that others would step up.

Pateryn answered the call in true captain fashion. You just have to look at him during a shift to see how he takes control of games. Seeing him slam his 216-pound frame into opponents is painful to watch, and he doesn't stop doing that until he's back on the bench.

So Pateryn proved the ideal defenseman in Merrill’s absence. And now that Merrill is back? Well, he has still set the standard pretty high — every team needs a workhorse like Pateryn to pick up the slack when the forward line falters.

It’s hard not to look at Merrill’s 10 points and wonder how well the team would’ve fared if had he never left the lineup. There was a bit of a learning curve, but the defensive corps made it through somehow.

That certainly seems worthy of a Swedish Shuffle.

And then there’s the last question that no one wants to address: that seven-game winless streak.

Back in November, no one wanted to bring up the possibility that if things didn’t turn around, this team would be the first in 21 years not to make it to the NCAA Tournament.

Unlike questions surrounding the offense and defense, this one had no obvious solution. Maybe the team wasn’t trying hard enough, maybe there wasn’t any chemistry or maybe the hockey gods just weren’t willing it.

The losses ended almost as suddenly as they had started — it only took a December trip to Alaska to get the Wolverines going again.

Michigan certainly wasn’t dancing in the locker room during the month-that-shall-not-be-named. But the Wolverines did this weekend.

The Michigan team on Saturday was unrecognizable from the same squad that took the ice even a month ago. Did the Wolverines play a perfect game? Far from it. But the only thing that matters is that the team can put a name to its problems now.

Turnovers. Penalty minutes. Special teams.

The season isn’t over yet — there’s still one series against Bowling Green left. But no matter how next weekend turns out, Michigan will be a No. 1 seed in the CCHA Tournament at best, and a No. 5 at worst. The team's beaten all the foes that stand in their way at least once this season.

And by that point, they won't have to answer to anyone's questions but their own.

So, for now, let the Wolverines keep dancing.

— Vukelich would love to see Berenson try and shuffle. She can be reached at elizavuk@umich.edu or on Twitter @LizVukelich