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A lack of focus. No energy. Not being mentally prepared.

These were the factors that contributed to the Michigan hockey team’s upset loss Friday night against Ohio State. Fortunately for the Wolverines, they were able to bounce back the next day with a 6-0 throttling of the Buckeyes. 

Come tournament time, though, Michigan won’t be afforded the luxury of a second chance. 

“We’re gonna get into a situation, a big game where it’s just a one-off,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “You don’t get a second opportunity. That’s your season, and how would you like to feel after you play like that and you’re done?”

Since the Wolverines returned from their COVID-19 induced shutdown, they’ve split both their series. One game, they’ll look like an unstoppable force that can score at will. The next, they’ll be caught completely flat-footed and unable to make up an early deficit. 

“I asked our team what’s the difference from one night to the next,” Pearson said. “For some its mental preparation. You have to work through that. You have to find a way to persevere and work through that.”

Being plagued by inconsistent play is an issue many teams deal with, mainly in the early stages of a season. It’s not something Michigan wants to be working through now — especially with the Big Ten Tournament looming just over three weeks away. 

It appeared the Wolverines were hitting their stride prior to the shutdown. Following the long layoff for winter break, Michigan won five of its first six games and was building its rapport as a national title contender. As the Wolverines work back from the pause, the team is desperately trying to get its conditioning back to the level it needs to be. 

“(That two-week shutdown) happened at the most inopportune time,” Pearson said. “That’s our big challenge, is how much do we need physically. But at the same time, we’ve got to back off so mentally so they can recharge and refresh.”

It’s no mystery how good this team can be. Michigan has been ranked in the top-10 all season, and even after their loss to an Ohio State team with just six wins, it stayed planted at No. 7. The perception is that this team will be fighting it out with the nation’s elite come late March. 

And yet, the Wolverines aren’t even dominating their own conference. They are currently tied for third place in the standings, 11 points behind Wisconsin and 15 behind Minnesota. They’ll have to go through both to win the Big Ten Tournament, and they’ll have to come into each game mentally and physically prepared — with no wiggle room for off days.

“Maybe these guys are just waiting to turn it on or turn it off,” Pearson said. “I still think we’re probably another week, week and a half away from being where we need to be.”

Not every game is going to be an offensive shootout. In between, there will be slow-paced, war-of-attrition type battles. In single-elimination tournaments, the Wolverines can’t afford  to quit if the game’s style of play doesn’t align with theirs. 

Michigan needs to approach these upcoming games with a consistent effort, and finding that consistency starts in practice. Pearson expressed his frustration with his players’ latest work ethic:  

“When I put them on the goal line and they skate down to the far end and touch the boards and come back as fast as they can; they go pretty fast. And then you say, ‘Okay, why don’t I put five million dollars down at the end of the rink and you got to go down there and there’s another five million when you come back.’ Are you gonna skate faster? They usually say every time, ‘Oh, absolutely.’ ” 

“Well, why? Why can’t you do it all the time? Why can’t you play all out all the time?”

So can Michigan flip the switch? That’s the five million dollar question. 

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