You can call it a squandered moment, a string of unlucky bounces or being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Whatever you want to call it, Michigan’s Thursday night Frozen Four loss marked the end of an era.
Going into the beginning of the season, the Wolverines were hailed as one of the top contenders for a national championship. Michigan had four of the top five NHL Draft picks on its roster. It was ranked third in the USCHO preseason poll.
And, for the most part, the Wolverines seemed poised to live up to those high expectations. They finished the season with a 16-8 conference record and a Big Ten Tournament title. Michigan skated past American International, 5-3, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and dropped Quinnipiac, 7-4, in the second.
“When you fast forward the tape here, in five or seven years, when you can see this thing play out, you may be looking at one of the best college hockey teams ever assembled,” American International coach Eric Lang said after losing to Michigan in the first round of the Tournament.
You might not have to fast forward all that far to see how rare — and fleeting — this team’s talent really was.
Following last season, speculation arose over whether sophomore forwards Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson would come back to Michigan, along with sophomore defenseman Owen Power, who would become only the second No. 1 draft pick to defer the jump to the NHL since 2000. But all three returned, helping build one of the most lauded college hockey teams ever assembled.
Now, all three have signed NHL contracts. Though next year’s roster could still feature a wealth of NHL-level talent, it won’t be the same generational lineup that took the ice this year.
Even beyond that roster shake-up, the Wolverines stand on shaky ground this offseason. Michigan coach Mel Pearson’s five-year contract expires on April 30. Overshadowing the contract negotiations is the pending investigation for toxic workplace culture, gender-based discrimination, retaliation against a student athlete and COVID-19 deception.
Despite Pearson’s impressive resumé — which includes two Frozen Four appearances and a Big Ten Tournament win — the allegations may prove too serious to overcome.
“I work under the direction of the athletic director (Warde Manuel) and the Board of Regents,” Pearson told the Daily. “So if they’re willing to have me back, that’s the plan.”
The investigation, which began in October 2021, didn’t seem to impact the team’s performance this season, but it remains to be seen whether the controversies — or Pearson’s potential departure — will have an impact on players’ decisions of whether or not to stay with the program. None of the drafted players were made available after Thursday’s loss.
There are certain Michigan teams that set the bar for all to follow: the Fab Five in 1991, the softball team in 2005, the 1997 football team, last season’s women’s gymnastics team.
When you fast forward not-so-far down the line, you’ll likely be adding the 2021-22 Michigan hockey team to that list. Despite the fact that the Wolverines failed to live up to their mile-high expectations — expectations they undoubtably had the talent to meet — they’ve still set a bar unlikely to be met by the currently shaky program anytime soon.