EAST LANSING — A winning streak starts with one game. And a win starts with one goal.
To call the Michigan hockey team’s series against Michigan State last weekend crucial would be an understatement. Once ranked No. 3 in the nation, the Wolverines had lost four straight games and compiled the program’s longest winless streak since 2011 before Thursday’s matchup in Detroit.
Anything less than a sweep of the Spartans would’ve been devastating. A split would put Michigan on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Two more losses to a rival with few quality wins would’ve been nothing short of embarrassing.
The week before the series, sophomore forward Andrew Copp said the Wolverines were “confident that we can beat those guys every night.”
But it’s one thing to talk bravado and another to play with it. For the greater part of two months, Michigan had been playing on its heels, and because of the sparse schedule, it had little opportunity to break the freefall.
“We had all this time to think about our last four games,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson.
Each of those was a loss, increasingly worrisome results from a team with Frozen Four aspirations. Against the Spartans, the Wolverines needed a win. They needed a spark. They needed a goal.
Thursday, Michigan had what appeared to be the elusive tally when junior forward Phil Di Giuseppe received a pass in the slot and rocketed a shot just over goaltender Jake Hildebrand’s left shoulder. It was sure to pull at the twine, except Hildebrand reached up with his glove and snagged the puck while falling backward, and the goal that was, wasn’t.
That shot goes in, unless you’re on a team that’s winless in 52 days. It’s a shot that gave Di Giuseppe and the Wolverines that much longer to consider their continuing futility.
“We haven’t played many games, so it’s hard to get out of a slump once you get in it,” Di Giuseppe said. “I thought it was going to go post-in for sure.”
With 2:18 remaining in a 1-1 game and Michigan needing a positive result, freshman defender Nolan De Jong did exactly what coaches preach when their teams can’t score: throw a shot at the net. It didn’t even reach Hildebrand because sophomore forward Andrew Copp deflected it, but then Di Giuseppe and linemate Boo Nieves took turns slicing at the puck just outside the crease.
Di Giuseppe finally managed to make contact with his stick. Like all the shots Michigan had so desperately needed to pull itself out of freefall in the previous month and a half, it was blocked.
But the puck skittered back to Di Giuseppe, and his next effort lifted the puck treacherously close to the crossbar but low enough to enter the goal.
“I thought it was going over the net,” he said.
But when the final horn blew 138 seconds later, the junior’s goal had ended 1,248 hours of futility. And the celebration was 52 days in the making.
“You saw me jump out there like an idiot,” Giuseppe said.
The following night in East Lansing, Michigan showcased the dominance it’s displayed for much of the season, combining skill with grit and a couple of lucky bounces to blow out Michigan State, 5-2. It was a win reminiscent of the Wolverines’ 5-1 and 5-3 victories at Munn Ice Arena in the 2010 CCHA Tournament, which were so convincing that Michigan fans drowned out their counterparts with cheers by the end of the series.
Friday, there weren’t as many supporters in maize and blue. But after the Wolverines asserted their will and the arena had emptied, the team gathered in the locker room and belted a euphoric rendition of ‘The Victors” that echoed down the hallway.
And that doesn’t happen without a goal.
Zúñiga can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @the_zuniga.