The Michigan hockey team split a pair of home games this weekend against an unheralded, but very competitive, Robert Morris squad. No, it’s not the end of the Wolverines’ NCAA tournament hopes or an indication that Michigan doesn’t deserve its lofty top-10 ranking.
But the loss does pose an unsettling question — when the Wolverines aren’t ‘The Comeback Kids,’ who are they?
Michigan is 4-1-1 this season and has scored as many goals in the third period as the first and second combined. It makes for fun hockey, but relying on late goals to win is not a recipe for sustained success.
Saturday’s 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the Colonials seemed to sober the giddy excitement of a previously undefeated team.
It is fair to say that the matchup was not ideal for the Wolverines. Robert Morris is a big, physical hockey team loaded with seniors. Colonials goaltender Dalton Izyk was unflappable in net, shutting out Michigan at Yost Ice Arena for the first time since 2009 on 34 saves.
Still, the home team looked altogether lost on Saturday. The Wolverines had trouble breaking out of the defensive zone cleanly, and particularly struggled getting to the net on offense.
Michigan coach Red Berenson attributed the loss to a complete lack of preparation, saying that he didn’t see any positive takeaways from the game. He complained of underwhelming goaltending from senior netminder Zach Nagelvoort, who started, and a lack of effort from the forwards.
“I didn’t think that we were as hungry or as desperate or ready to pay the price in front of their net,” Berenson said. “We were one-and-done, and we weren’t stopping on loose pucks. We were escaping. Sometimes you get away with that and the puck goes in, but it wasn’t going in.”
The Wolverines are a versatile group of players full of NHL draft picks and other top talent, but a team’s identity is a game plan that it can turn to when nothing else is working.
Michigan’s problem is pinpointing that identity.
“We just need to play fast,” said junior forward Justin Selman. “We’re a fast team. We’re a skilled team. We need to possess the puck down low, just be a little bit crisper. Once everyone has that jump in their stride, once everyone is moving the puck with a little bit of zip, we’re a much better team. I think we were chasing the puck a little too much tonight.”
Playing fast does help, but it seems unlikely to be a cure-all. The Wolverines looked lethargic at times Saturday, but more concerning was the lack of team play. As the game wore on and frustration mounted, Michigan players stopped looking to pass, instead carrying the puck into multiple defenders.
Robert Morris, content to let the poor quality attacks continue, turned away most of the rushes easily.
This type of individual play is the hallmark of a team that is uncomfortable playing together. But then again, why should the Wolverines be comfortable playing together just yet? This is a team reliant on young talent at both ends of the ice, just a few weeks into the season. There may be cause for concern, but certainly not alarm.
Freshman forwards Cooper Marody and Kyle Connor are tied for the team lead in points (7) and goals (3). On defense, three of the top six contributors are not yet 19 years old.
There were some bright spots in the game for Michigan as well. Selman, Marody and senior forward JT Compher all continued to crash the net on offense, a kind of hard-nosed hockey perfect for scoring goals in tight games.
To find a way to win consistently this season, though, the Wolverines need more. The team must play to its strengths — not just in the third period, but all game. Michigan is a fast team with deep talent. Puck movement and a willingness to sell out the body for a goal is what can separate the Wolverines from the pack of teams trying to wrench away their NCAA Tournament hopes.
Saturday’s loss should be warning enough.
Meyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Justinfmeyer