MINNEAPOLIS — The zamboni swept around the rink Friday morning, slowly clearing any shreds of ice that had been loosened by the skates of a hockey team minutes before. The machine’s unmistakable droning filled the arena, bouncing off the maroon and gold colored seats and rising to the rafters where countless banners hung from the ceiling, detailing the program’s history.
After a while, the zamboni disappeared, entering the bowels of the stadium, and it was quiet in Mariucci Arena.
Everything in Mariucci, it seems, is bigger. Mariucci is a modern-day coliseum without the gladiator games. This is the type of facility where children, playing pond hockey in the biting cold while holding onto their dreams as tightly as they grip their sticks, aspire to play one day.
The rink is Olympic-sized, which means it’s wider than the majority of college arenas. Opposing teams have been overcome by the speed and pace of the game on this ice in particular. Those same banners in the rafters are evidence of that. The arena practically comes with a script to be followed: the opposing team tires out from having to cover more ice or fails to cover its defensive zone assignments, the home team pounces, and the fans go home happy.
And the fans — they show up in droves. Mariucci, opened in 1993, is cavernous. The seats start at rink level and flow approximately two to three stories upward. The arena is one of the largest in the nation, seating 10,000 people — almost 3,500 more than the venerable Yost Ice Arena can hold.
For a beleaguered Michigan hockey team, this is where it found itself over the course of one January weekend as it sought to rekindle the embers of a dying season.
The Wolverines began the weekend — and the second half of their season — with an unremarkable 8-9-1 record, sitting at No. 34 in the PairWise Rankings. It was a hole that they had dug themselves into, slowly but surely, over the course of several months. Their fading hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament this spring lay with the pair of games against the Golden Gophers, who were tied atop the conference standings with Penn State — a team that had already dismantled the Wolverines earlier this season.
The dimensions of the rink, the size of the crowd and the skill level of the home team are all reasons why Mariucci is a difficult place for any team to exorcise its demons. It just happens that this is especially true for Michigan.
The Wolverines entered the series having won only once over their past six games at Mariucci. A 6-2 win last year — thanks to an explosive offense long gone to the NHL — broke a winless streak that had dated back to 2008.
Nine years ago, the roles were reversed. The Golden Gophers were just beginning a three-year stretch of missing the postseason, while Michigan was still in the midst of its record-setting 22-year NCAA Tournament streak. But Minnesota corrected its course — it has made the tournament in four of the past five seasons and has won the Big Ten every year since its formation. The Wolverines, on the other hand, have faltered.
The NCAA Tournament streak ended in 2013, and what was once the expectation every year has now become an uphill climb, as Michigan has made it only once in the past four years.
A win or two against No. 9 Minnesota would have provided the Wolverines with some much-needed momentum as they entered the final stretch. Both the players and coaches recognized this. After all, opportunities to hit a partial reset on your season don’t come around very often.
“I’m hoping that we take some steps toward that,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson two days before the opener. “I think our team is right there, but there’s got to be a galvanizing moment or event or game or something happens with our group.”
Winning the games so that Berenson’s hope would come to fruition — that was the challenge they faced Friday and Saturday. But this wouldn’t have been the first Michigan team in recent memory to have turned things around with one series.
The streak began on the road against an old CCHA rival. Miami (Ohio) won two close games against the Wolverines, the first in regulation and the second by shootout. Then it spiraled out of control, as they suffered four straight losses at home over the course of nine days.
After six consecutive losses, the 2011-12 Michigan team — once ranked No. 1 in the nation — was staring at a .500 record near the midway point of the season.
A trip to Alaska awaited, and after that, uncertainty. Prior to the series against the Nanooks, seven of the nine teams remaining on the Wolverines’ regular-season schedule were ranked in the top-20.
Michigan needed a win in the worst way before it entered the meat of its schedule. But that was easier said than done.
The Wolverines, according to former goaltender Shawn Hunwick, had tried everything to end the losing streak. They had changed their pre-game rituals, from not listening to music before the game to switching up their stretches. The coaching staff had tried mixing up the lines and making other strategic adjustments. Still, the team continued to lose and plummet in the rankings.
“At that point, you’re like, ‘There’s nothing else to change.’ We were going to go out there and throw everything up against (Alaska) because we were the 30th-ranked team in the country at that point in time,” Hunwick said. “What do we have to lose?”
The team traveled to Alaska early that week. It would have to find a way to win away from the friendly confines of Yost — though Hunwick believes leaving Ann Arbor actually helped.
“I do think there’s something about going on the road, getting away from the pressures of playing at home (and) the grind of going to school,” Hunwick said. “These guys are going to class on Fridays and stuff. When you get on the road, sometimes you just (say), ‘We’re all going to come together here and we’re going to battle.’ ”
Hunwick’s theory was on its way to becoming true when Michigan scored a little over two minutes into the series opener. But then disaster struck — Alaska responded 10 minutes later to tie the game, before scoring two more goals in the span of just seven seconds to take a commanding two-goal lead en route to a 4-3 win.
The losing streak had reached seven. Salvation would have to wait.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines regrouped. The team was led by a quartet of seniors that year: Hunwick, who was the assistant captain, forwards Luke Glendening and David Wohlberg and defenseman Greg Pateryn.
Younger players like Mike Chiasson, a freshman defenseman that season, looked up to those four during this particularly trying stretch.
“… Those guys had been through a lot in their time here,” Chiasson said. “We leaned on those guys a lot, and I don’t remember exactly who got the goals or who made the big plays at times, but it was probably a bunch of different guys who stepped up, whether it was a freshman or a big save by the goalie or one of the leaders on the team.”
Hunwick thought of himself as the least vocal leader out of the four seniors. But while he may not have been the loudest in the locker room, his play that year spoke for itself. Hunwick turned in a historic season, posting a 2.00 goals-against-average with a .932 save percentage to earn a spot as a Hobey Baker finalist.
And in the second game of the series, he turned in a gutsy performance when his team needed it most, tallying a 25-save shutout.
Unfortunately for Michigan, Alaska’s Scott Greenham happened to be just as good as Hunwick during regulation, saving all 41 shots he faced to force the game into overtime.
But less than a minute into the extra period, Michigan freshman forward Alex Guptill threw a bouncing puck to the net and Greenway could not make his 42nd save. The Wolverines had ended their losing streak, thanks to the efforts of their senior goaltender and Guptill’s dose of luck.
“… It was a fluky goal,” Hunwick said. “I remember getting a shutout thinking I could have given up five or six goals that game. I was fortunate to get out (of) that game without giving up a goal. I didn’t feel particularly comfortable, probably due to a seven-game losing streak and the pressure that goes with that. I think we were just fortunate to get out (with a win). It was just a battle.”
However fluky the win may have been, it was the cure Michigan needed. The Wolverines went on to win 16 of their next 21 games, resuscitating what had once seemed like a lost season, before falling to Cornell in overtime of the NCAA Midwest Regional.
Chiasson and Hunwick have kept up with this year’s team and both felt it could pull off a turnaround similar to their own.
And both also felt that turnaround started with the series at Minnesota.
“… Minnesota’s going to be a tough task,” Hunwick said. “That’s a tough place to go just like Alaska was, but games like that, in situations like this, it can change your whole season.”
Added Chiasson: “… It could just take one weekend for them. It doesn’t have to be a sweep, it could just be a good weekend for them to get their game and their feet underneath them. That’s the special crazy thing about this sport — you look at what the Columbus Blue Jackets have done with their win streak.
“It happens quick, and sometimes all it takes is just a couple wins to get going and to find your legs and to find your game.”
For a short time, it seemed like the Wolverines had a chance in the series opener against the Golden Gophers to capture a win like that of their predecessors against Alaska.
The game started quickly, with Minnesota firing several shots at senior goaltender Zach Nagelvoort in the first few minutes.
But Nagelvoort and Michigan were up to the task early, stopping whatever the Golden Gophers threw at them, and nearly nine minutes into the first period, the Wolverines took the lead.
Senior forward Evan Allen found the puck along the boards and passed it to senior forward Max Shuart, whose one-timer beat Minnesota goaltender Eric Schierhorn.
It felt like the moment Michigan had been waiting for. Then things fell apart in the span of just six minutes.
The Wolverines’ defense continued to surrender opportunity after opportunity, and Nagelvoort could only stop so many chances.
The first goal beat him short side to tie things up. The second was a perfectly-placed deflection that he didn’t have much of a chance on. And the third — the true backbreaker — came with just 1.7 seconds left in the opening period, when Michael Szmatula struck home a rebound that seemed to visibly deflate the visitors.
A short-handed goal in the second period briefly cut the deficit to one, but Michigan still could not generate any consistent offense, while the defense struggled to stay with Minnesota’s explosive top line — especially forward Tyler Sheehy, who slammed home a juicy rebound before sniping one past Nagelvoort late for the final score.
All the problems the Wolverines dealt with throughout the year, from leaving the goaltender out to dry, suffering breakdowns on defense and taking too many penalties, were present in Friday’s performance.
“We’re giving up too many goals — it was just about the same old story,” Berenson said after Friday’s game. “Too many shots, too many chances against, and we weren’t good enough with the puck and we weren’t good enough without the puck. … We have to be better. Do I think we can play better? Yeah. That’s our job, and it’s our players’ job to figure this out and to get ourselves playing at a better level, with or without the puck.”
Whatever post-game talk Berenson gave his team appeared to work the following night — at least for the first period.
Michigan was aggressive on both ends of the ice, forcing turnovers and creating chances of its own. The Wolverines’ newfound intensity and effort were making the Golden Gophers look sluggish — until another last-minute calamity befell Michigan.
With just seconds left, Minnesota’s Vinni Lettieri carried the puck down the ice before unleashing a shot at a partially screened Hayden Lavigne. Obstructed or not, Lavigne couldn’t find the puck, and the Golden Gophers took the lead with just 2.3 seconds left in a period in which they had been outplayed.
The Wolverines seemed dazed as they skated to the locker room, and it showed when they came back out for the next period.
It took Michigan nearly 12 minutes just to register a shot on goal. The Golden Gophers scored again in the waning seconds, entering the third period with a two-goal lead.
Then things turned from bad to worse.
A late cross-checking penalty gave the Wolverines a power play heading into the final period, but just 30 seconds in, Michigan coughed up the puck.
Senior forward Alex Kile was forced to pull down Minnesota’s Lettieri on the short-handed breakaway, and Lettieri calmly converted the ensuing penalty shot.
The Wolverines added two goals later in the period, but the damage had already been done.
“Those are tough goals to give up,” Berenson said. “I’ve said all along, first-minute goals or last-minute goals (are tough to give up), and I think we gave up four of them this weekend. Whether it was just coincidence or it was a breakdown or letdown, I couldn’t tell you. But those goals are backbreakers.
“… We finally got back in the game late, but too little, too late. They had a penalty shot opportunity — we had a power play and sure enough, they get a breakaway against it, and the game turns that quickly.”
Michigan arrived in Minnesota looking for redemption and found none. An already low PairWise Ranking — often just the top-16 make the NCAA Tournament — dropped three more spots to No. 37.
Glimpses of the team that had beaten No. 5 Boston University and No. 11 Union had appeared at times against the Golden Gophers. But glimpses aren’t enough, especially with just 14 games left in the regular season. For every few minutes Michigan played Minnesota tough, there were still long stretches of play when the Golden Gophers had their way with the Wolverines. Michigan, it would appear, still lacks the consistency of an NCAA Tournament team.
Berenson and senior captain Nolan De Jong remained optimistic about the team’s trajectory after the sweep. The Wolverines’ effort the second night, in comparison to the opener, was something they hoped to build on.
“We talked (last night) about a commitment to paying team defense and playing harder without the puck and not giving them so much time and space in our zone,” Berenson said Saturday. “And I thought we did that. I thought we played better most of the game. Let’s face it, we only had one shot most of the way through the second period. We killed two penalties but they had us on our heels. But I thought we started the game stronger and we competed harder all night.”
Added De Jong: “Obviously we didn’t get the win, but I liked the way our team came out in the third and at least showed some grit, showed some character. That pushback is something that we haven’t had enough this year.”
When asked how he thought the team could improve its consistency, De Jong spoke about the work Michigan would have to put in this week at practice to limit the type of letdowns they suffered against Minnesota. He spoke about the need for the Wolverines to believe that they could play with full intensity for all 60 minutes. He mentioned that a sweep of Michigan State would be “huge” for the Wolverines.
And yet whether he wants to admit it or not, De Jong and his team already had a chance to reignite their season.
But like so many in recent years, they fell prey to Mariucci.