The floodlight shone down from the rafters onto Nick Schilkey, christening the Buckeyes’ overtime hero who had just handed the Michigan hockey team its second loss of the weekend against Ohio State.
Schilkey’s goal came on a broken play, after Michigan senior goaltender Steve Racine made two saves that seemingly kept the Wolverines’ hope of a victory alive. But after the second rebound, Racine left the net in a footrace with Schilkey to clear the puck.
The Ohio State junior beat Racine to the spot and buried the puck into the net past a pair of sprawling Michigan players.
As the Buckeyes celebrated on the ice, the Wolverines laid in the same spot Schilkey had left them — hanging their heads, collapsed on their knees, helplessly watching Ohio State celebrate a weekend it had no business winning.
The fact is, this wasn’t a fluke. Ohio State outplayed Michigan this weekend — not in every facet of the game, but the sixth-ranked Wolverines were outplayed nonetheless.
But losing isn’t the real issue. You can’t expect a team to be perfect. After all, every team that sits above Michigan (10-5-3-2 Big Ten, 20-7-5 overall) in the PairWise Rankings — with the exception of Quinnipiac — has five or more losses.
And losing to opponents you should beat on paper isn’t the real issue either.
No. 5 Boston College lost to both New Brunswick (in an exhibition) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute early in the season. No. 1 North Dakota dropped a game against Wisconsin in November and No. 3 St. Cloud State lost to Colorado College in January.
I can’t curse here, so let me put it this way: In college hockey, fecal matter happens.
The real issue is that the Wolverines have yet to establish an identity.
The sweep at the hands of the Buckeyes has made that issue even more pressing. Michigan is now tasked with getting up off its knees and finding its identity. But there isn’t much time, with only one series against Penn State separating the team from the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.
The most concerning part of this predicament is that there have been stretches when the Wolverines seemed to establish their calling card, when the pieces come within centimeters of completing the puzzle.
But at those junctures, when fans yearn for a “ta-da!” moment, there always seems to be a weekend that pulls those pieces farther apart.
Just look at the winning stretch Michigan put together in February, when the Wolverines seemed to put any concerns about an identity crisis out of question. They barreled through their opponents and went on a five-game undefeated tear from Feb. 6 through Feb. 25.
Racine was playing the best hockey of his life, and the defense was finally up to speed with an offense that has been producing historic numbers.
The Wolverines capped off the run with a commanding win against Minnesota that put them in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten regular season title.
But only a day after taking the wheel, Michigan let it go, swallowing a 3-2 overtime loss against the Golden Gophers.
That’s when you started to wonder if the Wolverines’ identity was being turned on its head.
Then the two recent defeats against the Buckeyes provided a stronger case that it had.
Those losses were ugly. Friday, Michigan squandered an early two-goal lead at home and allowed Ohio State to score six unanswered goals.
Sunday didn’t get much better, as the Buckeyes scored three consecutive goals in the first and led 5-1 for most of the second period.
And in both games, there were stretches when the Wolverines looked lost, searching for something to grasp onto that could pull them back into contention.
That’s the most troubling part. Yes, the teams above Michigan in the PairWise Rankings have losses, and bad ones at that, but they also have a blueprint to follow when the cards seem stacked against them.
When the Wolverines get to the NCAA Tournament, they will see that first hand.
Boston College’s defense is fourth in the nation. St. Cloud State has the second-best power play in college hockey. No. 2 Quinnipiac and No. 7 Yale both sit atop the country in the penalty kill, and North Dakota does it all, ranking in the top 10 in both team defense and team offense.
And if Michigan doesn’t have it all figured out when those matchups come its way in March, it could quickly get bullied out of contention.
The Wolverines’ search for an identity like those of its powerhouse counterparts has been an inconsistent process. As Michigan coach Red Berenson put it after Sunday’s loss, “We’re saying one thing and doing another on the ice.”
The Wolverines can say they need to improve the defense, which they do, but the stark reality is that given the season’s sample size, they simply won’t shut out opponents. Their defense isn’t at that level, and they don’t have the time to get there either.
Finding what they have been looking for all season may be as simple as not ignoring the obvious. Michigan leads the nation with 4.72 goals per game. No team has scored at that rate since the 1999-2000 season.
What’s so wrong with embracing that? When Michigan tries to “play better defense,” it adopts a conservative approach in the defensive zone that looks like the Wolverines are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. That’s not who they are, and they shouldn’t pretend it is.
But when they embrace this historic offense and use their defensemen to compliment it by keeping them tight at the blue line and involved in the offensive play, it’s a sight to behold.
The players aren’t in denial. They know this team doesn’t have an identity yet. Sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski acknowledged that Sunday.
“An identity is built over a full year,” he said. “When we get to playoffs, I think we’re going to find it. I’m not too worried about it. It wasn’t a great weekend for us, but when it comes time for playoffs, I think we’ll be dialed in and ready to go.”
The concerning questions, though, are this: What happens if Michigan needs something to lean on in a tight game early in the postseason? What if the Wolverines can’t replicate the performances from their winning stretches, but instead have one of their off games in a win-or-go-home situation?
The weekend against Ohio State brought a serious concern to the forefront. The Wolverines don’t have a reliable identity yet, and finding it in the middle of a postseason run might not be good enough.
There are 17 days until the NCAA Tournament. The clock is ticking.
Santo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Kevin_Santo_8.