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Mike Eisenstein: To succeed, the Wolverines have to find offensive rhythm

BY MICHAEL EISENSTEIN
Daily Sports Editor
Published November 23, 2008

OXFORD — The Michigan hockey team, down 2-1 late in the second period, was killing off a five-minute major penalty and struggling to clear the puck. Then, senior forward Travis Turnbull broke free after intercepting a Miami (Ohio) pass along the blue line.

He had lots of open ice and just RedHawk freshman goalie Connor Knapp to beat.

As Turnbull sprinted towards the net, he went forehand to backhand before Knapp stuffed the shot with his right pad. Turnbull pulled his stick back over his head, looking frustrated and on the verge of slamming his stick.

It was a great play, but Turnbull was aggravated he couldn’t tie the game for Michigan and spark its desperate offense.

Before this weekend, the Wolverines had never been held to just one goal in a weekend series during Michigan coach Red Berenson's 25-year tenure.

This year’s offensive frustration stands in stark contrast to last year’s success, led by Hobey Baker winner Kevin Porter and fellow senior Chad Kolarik. The Wolverines don't have any offensive leaders to turn to when they're getting stuffed, no one player or line to count on to consistently spark the offense.

“Right now, I don’t think anybody’s really stepped up and said, ‘Hey, lift all the weight on my shoulders,’ ” sophomore top-line center Louie Caporusso said. “I think scoring is something that comes in bunches and you can’t really pinpoint someone out and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to lead our team in goal scoring this year.’

“It doesn’t work like that.”

At first glance, Caporusso, the nation’s leading goal scorer, would seem to be that player, but that’s not quite the case. Caporusso has scored sporadically this season. Seven of his 12 goals have come in three games. He has also had zero points in six games this year. And you have to have more than just one scorer.

“We don't have the offensive depth or the offensive leadership that we had from Porter and Kolarik,” Berenson said Friday. “We have to make up for that. We have players trying to fill those gaps.”

Missing the offensive leadership has had a bigger impact on the rest of the team than most anticipated. Exasperation such as Turnbull’s was rarely evident last season.

Sure, frustration is natural, but having a level-head is crucial to capitalizing on the isolated chances. Michigan isn’t converting, and right now it doesn't have the offensive leadership to facilitate improvement.

Years of playing sports and watching as a fan have made it pretty clear that anger is not a motivator for most. John McEnroe, infamous for throwing tantrums on the tennis court and then pulling out heroic wins, is the exception, not the rule.

It’s not that the Wolverines aren’t putting out the effort or are playing poorly. But think of an athlete’s focus as a bag of marbles that gets bigger and bigger as they gain confidence. As soon as they let out that cry of frustration and let their focus slip, the marbles go flying all over. Most can be recovered, but it’s very difficult to regain full intensity. And if you’re not at your most intense, you won’t play poorly, but you won’t have an easy time capitalizing on those isolated chances, either.

Sure, getting a little puck luck will give the Wolverines some confidence. Offensive weapons like Turnbull and sophomores Matt Rust and Carl Hagelin have scored two combined goals since Michigan was crushed 7-2 at Boston University a month ago.

But in the long term, production on offense must emerge if this team is going to turn around its six-loss year, the same number it lost all last year, and eliminate the forwards' desperation.

It’s possible, but with Wisconsin, No. 1 Minnesota and a series with Michigan State looming, the Wolverines have to turn it around quickly and in the toughest stretch of the season.

— Eisenstein can be reached at mseisen@umich.edu