- Paul Sherman/Daily
By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 10, 2013
SOUTH BEND — The notion that the next four games matter for the Michigan hockey team is wrong.
The regular season is effectively over after being swept by No. 12 Notre Dame.
Forget about playing playoff hockey in the regular season and save it for when it was intended: the playoffs.
I’m not suggesting the Wolverines lose, or not play at all or play without 100-percent effort, though. After the Wolverines clinched their first losing season since 1986-87 with a 7-4 loss to Notre Dame on Friday, there is nothing left to play for but the CCHA Championship.
There are no statistics to be salvaged in these four games. In many categories, Michigan ranks near the bottom of the NCAA and CCHA standings, most notably in team defense as it’s giving up 3.67 goals per game.
The chances that the Wolverines clinch home ice in the first round are slim, too. Michigan has only swept one opponent this year and now sits at ninth place in the CCHA standings.
So it already makes sense to say this team can’t redeem itself in the regular season. But when the conference playoffs roll around, the Wolverines can make an improbable run where they get an extra chance to win a series with the best-of-three format.
I understand the counter argument that the Wolverines could control their own fate in the CCHA playoffs by playing for a better seed, but the way this season has gone provides no indication to believe that.
When it comes to facing teams with fewer wins, Michigan plays well, but the next two opponents — Ohio State and Ferris State — have much better records. The Bulldogs sit in fourth place and the Buckeyes in fifth, with both teams needing two victories at the least to secure their spots.
Consider that when the Wolverines challenge Ohio State in Columbus the odds will be against them. Michigan has won just one game on the road in 2013, and if they continue to allow almost four goals a game, it surely won’t get better.
Even a home game against Ferris State won’t increase the chances of winning. Michigan has only won a single home game this calender year in what is supposed to be one of the most formidable arenas in the country to play in.
So why treat the next games like they mean more?
You argue they should play for pride? I certainly agree. But that pride won’t come from winning a couple of their next games — it’s already gone. Pride will come from earning wins in the CCHA playoffs as underdogs.
I wouldn’t suggest this team quit, as that would ruin the integrity of the game above many other things. But there’s no explainable reason for the Wolverines to take a risk that could negatively impact them before the playoffs.
“We’ve got to get our game,” Berenson said. “We’ll work on all the things we’ve been working on. There’s too much parity in the CCHA … we can’t make mistakes.”
But this idea becomes more appropriate because Berenson and the Wolverines wouldn’t have to worry about making mistakes. There are four games for Michigan to make mistakes, to experiment and see what works without hurting it.
Michigan coach Red Berenson can take this time to re-arrange the lines, like he has all season.
He can leave in a goaltender that has struggled, like freshman Jared Rutledge, for the hope that he gains consistency and confidence when it maters most, because right now alternating them is having them same effect as throwing a body in front of the net in the hope that it will block shots.
When Notre Dame scored Friday with an empty net with 30 seconds to go, and Rutledge slowly skated onto the ice, the irony was that he was going out to be just as effective as an empty net.
But it also means that the Wolverines can work on their glaring issue of defense. While injuries have been a large part of their struggles all season, Friday and Saturday were highlighted by players struggling to account for opponents over the weekend, or prevent the Fighting Irish from skating near the net.
With junior defensemen Mac Bennett and Jon Merrill back and healthy at the same time, there will be chances for Michigan to regroup and also work on developing consistency.
So now the Wolverines are faced with the question of how to use the bye week. Should it be in preparation for two series that were predicted to challenge them at the beginning of the year, or for a long-term plan to put themselves in position for the playoffs?
Whatever they decide, they will have to use this week to lay a different foundation for the postseason.
“I don’t know if it’s a relief,” said senior forward Kevin Lynch in regards to the bye week. “But it will definitely give us a chance to work on some things we need to clean up.”
So if Michigan wins along the way, then it only helps, but it shouldn’t let a loss have an effect. These are the times to learn what works, because everything else that’s been tried previously hasn’t.
There are three weeks to figure out how to close out games, to deliberate about who can work well together and determine how to stop teams from scoring so frequently.
It’s a simple idea, really. The tough part will be whether it’s accepted or not.
Garno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org