The sobering reality was clear well before Ohio State scored just prior to the final horn to cap off a brutal weekend for the Michigan hockey team.
This reality was especially sobering because it was a new one. For two straight nights, the Wolverines had been dominated in every facet of the game and run off their home ice. They didn’t try to deny it, either.
“Overall, it just came down to outworking us,” said sophomore forward Jake Slaker. “All weekend they outworked us, all six periods.”
Michigan coach Mel Pearson employed his own analogy.
“The makeup came off and we saw a lot of the blemishes this weekend,” Pearson said. “We were able to cover some things up, (but) this weekend we saw a little bit of some of the issues that we’re going to have going forward.”
As it turns out, the Wolverines had been applying plenty of makeup. And the Buckeyes were well-equipped to wash it off.
Some of Michigan’s blemishes were more obvious than others. The Wolverines haven’t allowed less than three goals in a contest since Nov. 2 against Ferris State. After this weekend, they rank 55th in the country in goals-against per game.
Pearson believed his maligned defense took steps forward “for two and a half periods” in Friday’s 3-2 defeat. But the unit seemed to take those same steps backward a night later. Sloppy clearances and giveaways deep in the defensive zone have hurt Michigan all season. They were responsible for Ohio State’s second goal Saturday, when junior defenseman Nicholas Boka lost the puck behind his own net, and nearly resulted in multiple goals in the first period.
Prior to this weekend, the Wolverines were able to, in Pearson’s words, “outscore our mistakes.” That wouldn’t be the case — and wasn’t — against the Buckeyes, who have allowed the second-fewest goals and seventh-fewest shots on goal per game in the nation.
A 5-4 or 6-6 slugfest — scores that Michigan has seen plenty of this year — wasn’t expected this weekend. And it’d be unfair to judge the Wolverines’ offense entirely on its last two performances.
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t flaws — lack of depth key among them. Michigan had been relying too heavily on junior forward Cooper Marody and senior forward Tony Calderone, who had combined for half of the team’s points last weekend at Wisconsin. Marody saw his eight-game multi-point streak come to an end as he was kept off the stat sheet Friday, and the pair registered just two assists against the Buckeyes.
“They took Cooper’s time and space away, made it tough on those guys and we just couldn’t step up,” Pearson said. “And that’s what we’re asking from some other guys to get opportunities to give us some depth, and we haven’t taken advantage of that. That’s going to continue to be an issue, so we’re going to have to move some things around.”
If there’s any silver lining to the Wolverines’ showing this weekend, it’s probably the fact that it took place when it did, as they don’t have an official game this week. This gives Michigan a needed opportunity to try to shore up its numerous problems — a “good work-week” according to Pearson. Pearson even mentioned the idea of shaking up the top line of Marody, Calderone and senior forward Dexter Dancs, a line which had been so potent earlier in the season.
“They’ve been going pretty good,” Pearson said. “But you get to a point — you can’t break them up when they’re rolling, so this might be a good chance to experiment and see where we’re at.”
Sitting in the media room at Yost Ice Arena after Saturday’s defeat, Slaker was asked if his team could take away anything from the weekend, when taking the parallels between last year’s Michigan team and this year’s outfit into consideration.
“I don’t know if we can really compare last season and this season,” he replied. “I think it’s totally different teams.”
Of course, Slaker’s correct. These Wolverines are vastly different in terms of coaching, playing style and identity.
They’re different in terms of caliber, too. Pearson stated at Michigan’s media day that if he was a forecaster, he would pick the Wolverines — who won just 13 games last season — to win the Big Ten. That was a much bolder prediction before they split with then-No. 15 Penn State in Happy Valley and recorded a win and a tie against then-No. 4 Minnesota.
But despite all of the concrete progress made, a good number of cracks were glossed over.
Certainly, there are three months of hockey left to be played. And a team in serious contention for a conference title is entitled to a rough couple games at some point.
But if the Wolverines truly are a Big Ten contender, as they believe they are, they’ll have to prove that those couple games were an exception rather than the rule. All of Michigan’s deficiencies this season were in full form against Ohio State, and those deficiencies manifested into a harsh wake-up call.
Cold reality hit this weekend, and the Wolverines weren’t ready.
Shames can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.