Nolan De Jong stood outside the visitors’ locker room at Mariucci Arena. As the captain of the Michigan hockey team, the senior defenseman reflected on another loss, one of many in a frustrating and disappointing season.
While clearly frustrated with the final outcome of two hard-fought matchups against then-No. 9 Minnesota, he still held some hope for the Wolverines’ upcoming games. Michigan would face rival Michigan State in two weeks, and De Jong believed a sweep against Spartans would provide some necessary momentum to rejuvenate the Wolverines’ season.
“I think beating State a couple times this next coming weekend will be huge for us,” De Jong said that night. “I think it’s going to come down to the hard work that we have to put in this week. We’re going to have to have intensity and we’re going to have to come out and believe we’re a team that can play a full 60 minutes.”
The Wolverines, though, didn’t sweep Michigan State. They didn’t have that intensity and they failed to play a full 60 minutes. That first game saw Michigan drop a 4-0 shutout at Yost Ice Arena and while it earned a shootout victory in East Lansing the following day, it wasn’t the result the Wolverines needed.
Just last weekend, Michigan faced off once more against the Spartans, and like its first two meetings, struggled in its matchup with the Big Ten cellar-dwellers. It took a shootout goal from junior defenseman Sam Piazza to fend them off Friday night, while Saturday, the Wolverines failed to get any offense going in a 5-1 loss.
The weekend served as a microcosm for a season Michigan will want to forget. One — usually close— game ending in a win and another matchup ending with a large loss. Against Ohio State the week before, Michigan fared similarly, winning on Friday night before losing a nail-biter the next day.
It was a loss that led Michigan coach Red Berenson to walk out after his postgame press conference. He discussed his disappointment with his team and left, neglecting to take any questions from the media.
But who could blame him? In such a tumultuous season that often leaves both coaches and players frustrated, it might even be justified.
Many expected the Wolverines to regress this season.
With the graduation of Steve Racine, Boo Nieves and Justin Selman and the expected departure of Kyle Connor and Zach Werenski, fans understood there would be some fallback. Still, they held out hope that JT Compher, Tyler Motte and Michael Downing would return.
But once everyone departed, the sad reality was that the team lacked experience and was filled with young, untested players.
It is difficult to quantify the exact effects that the return of Downing, Compher and Motte would bring, but it isn’t a stretch to say that at the least, their veteran presence would provide essential assistance to one of the youngest teams in the NCAA this season.
But given the sad reality of the present, fortunately for Michigan, they have some bright spots for the future.
Freshmen forwards Will Lockwood and Jake Slaker have gained valuable playing time in Michigan’s top six, while sophomore forward Cooper Marody — who missed the first half the season due to academic ineligibility — picked up where he left off from last season, tallying nine points in 10 games.
In the crease, freshmen netminders Jack LaFontaine and Hayden Lavigne have also gained valuable experience — starting 73 percent of Michigan’s games this season, and will continue to battle for playing time in the upcoming years.
But these bright spots won’t see their full potential for at least another year.
And even this season, the sad reality is that it might even get worse for the Wolverines. This weekend, they travel to Madison to take on No. 20 Wisconsin, followed by a series in Columbus against Ohio State before finishing the season with visits from No. 5 Minnesota and No. 9 Penn State.
Michigan earned just two victories against these teams in its first six games and will not be the favorite in any of these upcoming matchups.
In a year marred with injuries, disappointment and a longing for the past, it is sadly fitting that Michigan’s best hope for a victory may already be in the rearview mirror.