Bailey Johnson: An outdoor mirage
The win at Notre Dame was supposed to be a turning point.
Senior defenseman and captain Joseph Cecconi said as much after the Michigan hockey team beat the Fighting Irish, 4-2, at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.
“We all know that it’s time to turn this ship around, and all it takes is one win,” Cecconi said. “It’s three points for us, and we’re going to play Tuesday and just going to continue (to) go on. It doesn’t matter if it’s a league game or not, and we’re just excited that we got the win and it’s going to turn us around a bit.”
But when Merrimack — ranked 52nd of 60 teams in the Pairwise before Tuesday’s game against the Wolverines — came to Ann Arbor, Michigan found itself failing to build on the momentum from Saturday’s win.
To put it simply, the Wolverines fell on their faces in the 4-2 loss.
The Warriors average just 1.81 goals per game. Michigan gave up more than double that, including two in a span of less than five minutes.
In many ways, the performance mirrored the Wolverines’ season-opening loss to Vermont. Both losses were riddled with defensive lapses and an overall lack of respect for the opponent. But in that game against the Catamounts, Michigan had the excuse of being a young team still trying to come together and find chemistry.
“I thought we weren’t ready to play tonight,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson after falling to Vermont. “We weren’t really ready to play. We came in today with the mindset that it was going to be easy.”
But nothing has been easy for the Wolverines thus far.
Michigan skidded through the first half of the season. The Wolverines won a weekend series only once in the first half, when they swept St. Lawrence — which has a 3-14-1 record on the season and rank 59th in Pairwise — in late October. Michigan has also tied six times in the first 19 games.
All of that was supposed to change with the win over the Fighting Irish — a victory over one of the nation’s top teams on the road. The win snapped a nine-game winless streak that dated to mid-November — and the Wolverines won without sophomore forward Josh Norris and sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes, arguably their two best players.
The cards seemed to be set for Michigan to get back on track and make a run through the second half of the season, just as it did last year, when the Wolverines swept No. 9 Minnesota in the second weekend of the second half and ended up in the Frozen Four.
And then Merrimack happened.
“Not prepared to play, and that’s up to each player to be ready to play,” Pearson said after the loss. “We were worried as coaches, you go from playing Notre Dame and you got Ohio State on the back end and you got this midweek game.
“Couple comments from our team, ‘We didn’t take them serious’ or whatever. I don’t know how you can, because we’re not that good. We have to take every team serious to have a chance to win.”
Michigan didn’t take the Warriors seriously, and now its chance to build on the momentum of the win at Notre Dame is gone.
Once again, just like in the Vermont game, the Wolverines weren’t ready and ended up losing to an opponent they should’ve handily beaten.
There are no more excuses.
Michigan has had 21 games and over three months to get ready to play. Now, with the second half of the Big Ten season looming, the Wolverines are running out of time to figure things out.
This weekend, Michigan will visit No. 4 Ohio State, which leads the Big Ten with 20 points and a 5-2-3 conference record. The Wolverines sit third with 15 points, and a sweep of the Buckeyes could put them in first place.
But that’s a tall order for a team that just lost to bottom-dwelling Merrimack and fell to Ohio State all five times the two programs met last season.
“They had our number last year,” said junior forward Jake Slaker on Tuesday after the loss. “We played them five times and they beat us five times. We’re not happy with that, and we know how — they have a strong team.
“We’re going to go in there and we got to throw the whole kitchen sink at them. We got to really go at them and try to grab as many points as we can, because the Big Ten’s tight right now and these are huge games for us.”
Slaker is right. This weekend is a huge series for Michigan.
There isn’t any more time for talk of turning points or springboards or any other cliché about how a struggling team can save a season.
It’s time for the Wolverines to turn talk into action.
If they don’t, the win over Notre Dame will become simply one good win in a lost season.
Johnson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BaileyAJohnson_