In the first game of a best-of-three Big Ten quarterfinals series, the No. 5 Michigan hockey team played host to its in-state rivals, Michigan State.
It may have been the start of postseason play, but a lethargic start and relatively empty Yost Ice Arena seemed to suggest otherwise.
The Wolverines came out flat-footed and were unable to feed off the typically rowdy home crowd. Going into Friday night’s matchup, Michigan had outscored the Spartans 23-9 in four regular season affairs. Perhaps there was less urgency facing an inferior opponent — especially one with which it’s so familiar.
But early on, the tides had turned.
“I think whenever you play Michigan State, it’s a huge rivalry game and there’s a lot of pride involved in it,” senior forward Nolan Moyle said. “Emotions are always high and physicality is always high. I don’t think we necessarily loved our start, but I thought we did a really good job of coming together and finishing the game.”
For the first 20 minutes, Michigan State was able to play its brand of hockey. It prevented the Wolverines from flying out in transition and remained tight-knit in the defensive zone. Needless to say, it wasn’t the type of start that instills confidence for a deep playoff run.
“We were flat in the first period, for whatever reason” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “I like to use the Spring break excuse. We just didn’t have our normal routine. … I just thought we got off to a slow start.”
That disruption of rituals proved itself in the form of subpar performances from several Michigan skaters. The Wolverines didn’t have that edge fans have grown familiar with.
Star players like sophomore forwards Brendan Brisson and Kent Johnson were largely non-factors. Junior forward Johnny Beecher didn’t have his usual, physical impact. The veteran fourth line, consisting of seniors Garrett Van Wyhe, Jimmy Lambert and Moyle brought their chippiness, but didn’t dominate the forechecking game like they’re accustomed to.
Overall, the Michigan roster looked tired. Yes, there were disappointing individual showings, but the entire squad was devoid of energy. The game more closely resembled an October scrimmage than a conference tournament tilt.
“One thing we said after the game was we have to get off to a better start,” freshman forward Mackie Samoskevich said. “At the start of the game, we weren’t playing simple. I think tomorrow we’ll play simple and play in their zone. It’s a cliché, but, get pucks behind them and be patient.”
The Wolverines should still win this series with relative ease. Winning back-to-back games on the road feels like an insurmountable obstacle for Michigan State. Then again, this is presumably its last weekend of the season and it will do everything possible to extend its schedule.
Michigan is certainly aware of those implications — especially after the Spartans’ gritty showing Friday.
“They played hard, they played strong,” Pearson said. “They came after us… I don’t know, maybe because we’ve beaten them like we have the last three times. We’ve got to correct some things and make sure we’re ready to play better.”
It’s a testament to Michigan’s talent that a 4-1 postseason victory was underwhelming. Even though the Wolverines didn’t play their best hockey, they still controlled much of the last two periods. However, a Game One victory over the Spartans is merely the tip of the iceberg.
This is a team with National Championship aspirations. That means over a month of top-level hockey, competitiveness and energy. As the Big Ten tournament intensifies, efforts like tonight could result in an earlier-than-expected exit.
“We all need to be better,” Pearson added. “Take another step and be ready to play from the drop of the puck.
“We don’t want to be back here Sunday.”
Saturday night will be an opportunity not only to end Michigan State’s season, but a chance to build some much-needed momentum moving forward.