As practice wound down late Tuesday afternoon at Yost Ice Arena, Michigan coach Mel Pearson gathered his players for the typical end-of-day huddle.
That huddle lasted longer than normal, though, as Pearson got his players more involved. He asked the group to discuss things they liked about the team, and comments ranged from work ethic and commitment to perseverance and defensive success.
It was a moment to pause and look within — a chance to reflect on the past and mentally prepare for what is to come.
An exchange of this sort fits the script of this Michigan hockey team (3-5-2 overall, 0-3-1-0 Big Ten). The Wolverines have struggled to score consistently over the past two weekends, slipping into second to last in the conference standings.
Despite the tribulations, Pearson wants his squad to think about the positives. The common theme around the team is that bad breaks have been holding it back.
“Pucks are going to start falling in for us,” said senior forward Jake Slaker about the power play. “And I think that’s going to translate to five-on-five, too. I think we are right there where things are going to start going our way.”
But that raises the following question: Is it realistic to expect a couple good bounces of the puck to fix the woes? To that, I’d argue yes. But the margin for error is slim, and the team must figure out how to play through obstacles beyond bounces.
First, it’s key to dissect Michigan’s losses to see what exactly can be attributed to bad luck. The Wolverines’ tough stretch spans back to the 4-1 road loss against then-No. 18 Western Michigan. From then on, Michigan got swept by then-No. 13 Ohio State on the road, before tallying just one point in the recent home series against Minnesota.
Against the Broncos and Buckeyes, bad bounces were not the key issue. The Wolverines dug themselves into an early deficit in Kalamazoo and couldn’t climb back. And against Ohio State, the main issues were lackluster puck possession on offense, foolish penalties and a poor forecheck.
In the recent series, though, it’s fair to blame bad breaks. On Friday, Michigan generated chances and outshot the Golden Gophers 34-27 but didn’t get the breaks it needed to capitalize.
That was true Saturday, too, only that the bad bounces extended to the defensive side as the Wolverines’ first two conceded goals involved a fair amount of poor luck. And that view is shared by outsiders, too. For instance, Michigan State coach Danton Cole — whose team is the Wolverines’ next opponent — mentioned Michigan’s struggles have to do with ‘puck luck.’
The underlying trend is that despite the lack of scoring, the offense has made strides since the loss against Western Michigan. All the while, defense and goaltending have remained steady. If the offense continues to make strides and the defense remains stingy, then it’s logical that better bounces could help this team unleash its potential.
Pearson is no stranger to early season struggles. In his first season at the helm, Michigan fell two games under .500 in January after getting swept by Notre Dame. Regardless, in those two contests he recognized the potential of his team and knew it wasn’t too late. That group went on to make the Frozen Four.
“And that’s similar to now,” Pearson said. “We’re doing some really good things. We played hard against Minnesota when the games on the line, we just couldn’t quite get that next goal, that next break, to make a difference.”
Better bounces likely will come for the Wolverines; in such a long season, there will always be some spurts of good luck.
Those might not come right away, though, and in the meantime Pearson doesn’t want to force things on the attack. He sees offense as a balance between urgency and poise, but understands that balance doesn’t come easy.
Given that there will be bad breaks during every season, Pearson is quick to say he would rather have them early on, as has been the case. There’s value in learning early how to play when things don’t go your way as this can pay dividends in the games that really matter.
“These tight games, these close games, aren’t a bad thing,” Pearson said. “You wanna win your share of them, but we will. Usually (in sports) it evens out at some point. We just have to make sure we stay with it.
“We know where we wanna get to, it’s how we wanna get there. Right now we’re just making a little detour. It’s not the fastest way to where we wanna get to, but we’re on a detour, so we just got to manage the detour and find our way there.”
For Michigan to reach its destination, it must follow through on the good bounces immediately when they come, because the team cannot afford to dig more of a hole.
But the Wolverines must also learn to weather the storm when things go south. Luck doesn’t last forever, and the best teams know how to win even when bounces don’t go their way.
And if Michigan can figure this out, when the team gathers to culminate future practices the shared sentiments will be more profound.