The days when the Michigan hockey team was a flashy, offensive juggernaut are long gone.
The Wolverines are currently the second-worst Corsi team in the nation, meaning they give up far more shots than they attempt themselves.
As a result, Michigan coach Red Berenson has turned his team’s focus to defense, effort and consistency. Unfortunately for Michigan, for much of this year, it hasn’t been good enough.
Take the Great Lakes Invitational, where, after giving up a 4-1 lead, the Wolverines needed overtime against Michigan State to notch a lackluster third-place finish after their coaches and players had pinpointed it as a turning point for the season. So as the rematch against the Spartans approached, you’d think that would motivate Michigan. Instead, the Wolverines let Michigan State come into Yost Ice Arena and dominate its way to a 3-0 win.
“We talked all week about trying to change our Friday effort and result, and obviously we didn’t,” Berenson said. “It’s not like these are great plays. They’re just hardworking plays, and we’re not playing well enough without the puck, and we’re not finishing our chances.”
There are specific aspects of its game that Michigan needs to improve. But as the season goes on and results like Friday’s keep piling up, the team’s effort and consistency continue to come into question.
And while that may seem like a cop out answer for the Wolverines, it makes sense. No coach is going to ask their team to change its identity from game to game.
Even after Saturday’s win over the Spartans, Berenson acknowledged that the difference wasn’t strategy, it was just better execution.
“We had to be better in our zone, and I think we were,” Berenson said. “I thought we got out of the zone, we got the puck in deep better.
“We were a better team tonight than we were last night. It wasn’t strategy, it was just concentrating on playing the right way.”
For Michigan, playing the right way currently means playing solid defense while mainly relying on dumping and chasing on offense and winning one-on-one battles to the puck. This is what teams need to do when they aren’t talented enough to skate around defenses or big enough to skate through them. Right now the Wolverines are one of those teams.
Michigan has aimed to outwork teams, but has yet to do so consistently. If it had, its season might look a lot different.
It’s a dangerous way to play hockey, and the Wolverines’ various results are indicative of that. They beat No. 2 Boston University and No. 9 Union early in the year when the team’s energy was high, and Michigan looked like a team that could grind out wins against some of the best in the country. At other times, when the Wolverines’ effort is lacking and they aren’t playing as smart, they can lose 3-0 to a team like Michigan State, the No. 48 team in the Pairwise Rankings who they have dominated in the past, winning 10 of their last 15 meetings.
The difference between the two types of performances was never more evident than in Michigan’s series against the Terriers. In the first game, with four seniors out of the lineup due to a suspension, the remaining Wolverines played their best game of the season. Players like junior forwards Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone showed up in the box score and helped lead the team to a 4-0 win.
The very next night, when the seniors returned to the lineup, Michigan stumbled and fell, 4-2. And while that series may have been the most glaring example of the Wolverines’ inconsistency, it certainly isn’t the only one. Michigan hasn’t swept a weekend series all season, and this past weekend was arguably its best opportunity to do so.
“We’re trying everything as much as we can,” said senior defenseman Nolan De Jong after Friday’s loss. “We’ve been mixing things up, whether it's in practice or in our preparation or things like that. I think, honestly, we’re a pretty frustrated group right now, because I feel like we’re putting the work in, and we’re working hard. But we’re just not executing, and we’re not seeing the results.”
And that has been the story of the Wolverines’ season. Even when they work hard one game and play well, it seems that nobody — even themselves — knows if they’ll be able to replicate that performance in the next game.
But that trend can’t continue. The Wolverines will have to find the consistency that has eluded them so far, because they’re running out of time quickly. And if the past few weeks are any indication, if Michigan doesn’t change something, things aren’t getting better any time soon.
Persak can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @MikeDPersak or Venmo @Mike-Persak