It’s not something that can be taught. It’s not something that’s learned overnight. And it’s not something the Michigan hockey team has managed to do through the first eight games of the season.
Sure, there’ve been some periods of good intensity. Occasionally, the Wolverines have a series of shifts where all the momentum seems to be with them. But these moments are seemingly always followed by spans of play that lack energy and speed.
“I think I could take a period from this game, a period from that game and string it all together,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “But I can’t tell you we’ve had a game where we’ve had a good 60 minutes. Even in the shutouts. We can say, ‘Wow we won, 4-0.’ But we haven’t had that (complete) game yet.”
Even though it’s early in the season, their inconsistent play has already cost the Wolverines some potential wins.
Last Friday, Michigan jumped out to a two-goal lead halfway through the second period against No. 9 Ohio State. Then it happened — the mental focus was gone.
Within a couple minutes, the Buckeyes cut the Wolverines’ lead in half. A few minutes later, the game was tied. And when the final buzzer sounded, the Buckeyes had completed their comeback, Michigan allowing three unanswered goals.
That game against Ohio State wasn’t the first time the Wolverines’ inability to play consistently throughout an entire game caused them trouble.
On Oct. 19, the Wolverines faced Lake Superior State in game two of the weekend series. The previous night, they blanked the Lakers, 4-0, and after the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s game Michigan was cruising towards a victory, already ahead, 3-0.
As the second period began, the Wolverines looked like a completely different team on the ice — and it was for the worse.
Their play was sloppy and lacked control. The team that had earned a three-goal lead just 20 minutes prior was nowhere to be found and the scoreboard reflected it — the Wolverines’ lead was cut to one. The inconsistency that haunted Michigan last season was back in full force.
“Definitely when you’re in the lead, you don’t want to play scared or timid,” said sophomore forward Jimmy Lambert. “You wanna make sure you keep pushing the same way that got you in the lead. Because if you sit back and just try and coast to the end, they’re going to obviously put pressure on you, and if you’re not putting pressure on them, it makes it way too easy for them. That’s when you get pinned down.”
Though Michigan managed to hold off Lake Superior State, that series wasn’t the only one where Friday’s energy and intensity didn’t carry over to Saturday’s game.
On Oct. 26, the Wolverines traveled to Kalamazoo to play Western Michigan. Fresh off another 4-0 shutout win the night before, they looked to carry the momentum over to Saturday. But yet again, when the game started, Michigan fell flat.
In the opening three minutes of the game, the Broncos scored two goals, and the Wolverines, who had dominated just 24 hours prior, crumbled.
They weren’t disciplined. They were making careless turnovers. Michigan rebounded after the first minutes and stopped turning the puck over. But ultimately, it wasn’t enough to overcome the early deficit, as the Wolverines lost, 4-1, to split the series.
“It might not even be a period,” Lambert said. “It might just be five minutes. Or even one play. You take it off. That can change the entire game. Making sure that you’re completely dialed in for the entire game is one of the biggest components for having a successful night.”
But how does a team practice consistency? How does a coach push his team?
For Pearson, the answer isn’t only one thing.
In practice, he makes sure to include drills that create high levels of competition. Recently, the lineup has seen some changes in an attempt to motivate certain players to push harder. He even has one-on-one meetings with players to make sure they know what’s expected of them.
“All we tell them is we expect nothing but your best,” Pearson said. “But what is your best? And we talk about that and we define that. Just give us your best. That’s all we’re trying to ask for. Then that’ll run into the games too. It sounds simple, but it’s hard to come down every day and practice and work hard.”
The push for more consistent play doesn’t only come from Pearson, though. The whole team strives to motivate each other in the locker room to push harder. Senior captain Will Lockwood holds his teammates accountable when they’re slacking in games.
And when Lockwood or the alternate captains slack off, one of the younger players will call them out on it.
With Big Ten play having opened last weekend, Michigan learned how crucial it is to figure out how to play a consistent, full 60-minute game. And it needs to figure it out fast.
“It takes every guy in order to play a full 60,” Lockwood said. “I think every team kind of strives for that and it’s not the easiest thing to do. I think our record would be a lot different if we’d been doing that (playing consistently) for the whole year.”