Jorge Cazares: What will Michigan make of its season?
There’s really no other way to spin it: picking up only one point last weekend against a reeling Michigan State team is embarrassing.
From top to bottom, there needs to be a sense of urgency from the No. 15 Michigan hockey team. There is no questioning the fight the team displayed over the weekend –– but even though the individual effort was there, the results were not.
In order to be one of the best teams in the country as they showed they could be last season, the Wolverines need to find ways to win. After both games last weekend, Michigan coach Mel Pearson emphasized the need for his team to be able to grind out a game.
“We’re going to have to learn to play in games like this,” Pearson said on Friday. “It’s not going to be up and down hockey every night. We’re going to have to stop, start, grind it out, keep it simple and then find a way to win games.”
Michigan has the talent level on its roster to be among college hockey’s elite. There are nine NHL draft picks on the team –– just four other programs have more –– including two first-round selections, second only to Boston University’s four.
The Wolverines have shown flashes all season long. They matched a high-powered Penn State offense in Happy Valley –– scoring 12 goals in two games –– and duked it out against a defensive-minded Notre Dame team (save for a disastrous second period in the 6-2 blowout). But inconsistencies continue to plague the team as though Moses himself is still looking to prove a point.
Speaking of that second period against Notre Dame, it is a prime example of the team’s inconsistency. Michigan gave up three goals in a span of three minutes to begin the period –– a period that senior captain Joseph Cecconi called “embarrassing” –– and allowed one more before going into the second intermission. Outside of the second period of that game, they matched, if not outplayed, the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish –– outscoring Notre Dame, 4-3.
The Wolverines are reaching the pivotal halfway point of their season, marked by the annual Great Lakes Invitational Tournament that takes place Dec. 30 and 31. As far as results go, they currently find themselves in a state of mediocrity — two points away from the bottom of the Big Ten standings and dropping eleven spots from their preseason No. 4 ranking. Remember, only the top-16 ranked teams go on to the NCAA Tournament.
Last year, the Wolverines were 7-7-2 going into the GLI Tournament. A strikingly similar record to this season’s 6-6-3 with a series against Minnesota –– one of three teams tied at the bottom of the conference standings –– still remaining before the two-game tournament begins.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Pearson said after Saturday’s game. “We were in a very similar situation last year. Can we come out of that funk? This weekend will be a good chance for us to right the ship and go home for a few days in a good mood. We’ll be ready to go this weekend.”
Last season, the GLI marked a turning point of sorts for the Wolverines. They rattled off 11 wins in their next 16 regular-season games, climbing to No. 10 in the rankings after being unranked at the end of the GLI Tournament.
If last year is any indication, anything can happen this season. And though there is no uphill climb to make it into the rankings this year, Michigan is instead battling with a slippery slope, trying to cling to its top-16 spot.
Cecconi addressed the team after their loss on Saturday, reestablishing the team’s expectations and emphasizing the effort and buy-in needed on a daily basis. He made the decision to return to Ann Arbor instead of joining the Dallas Stars. Sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes also opted to return in lieu of beginning a promising NHL career in Vancouver. The defensive pairing –– along with the other seven NHL draftees on the roster –– clearly saw the potential to make another deep tournament run. There’s still half a season before that run is even a possibility.
Though the season is far from over, whether Michigan can find consistency and have a second-half push similar to last season remains to be seen.
And so, it’s time for the team to take a long look in the mirror and decide what it wants to make of its season.
Cazares can be reached @jcazares98 on Twitter or at firstname.lastname@example.org via email.