The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This adage could easily be the slogan for the Michigan hockey team this season.
The opponents change from week to week, but the storyline for the Wolverines never varies Michigan plays a team situated in the lower half of CCHA standings, and Michigan only manages to split the series.
The latest chapter in this season-long tale of underachievement was written this past weekend. Northern Michigan which came to Yost Ice Arena fighting for its” CCHA playoff lives in seventh place earned a split of the weekend”s games with a 2-0 shutout of the Wolverines on Saturday night, thanks to some stifling defense and 25 saves from freshman netminder Craig Kowalski.
Although Michigan (15-6-2 CCHA, 21-8-4 overall) was able to win Friday night”s contest 3-1, the Wolverines were generally outplayed in both games by Northern Michigan (9-9-6, 13-10-7), which was without injured leading scorer we played better than last night, but last night we did not have a good game,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said following Saturday”s defeat. “Last night we won the game because we were at home and we got the goals we needed to get, but we did not deserve to win the game.”
As has been the case on numerous occasions this year, Michigan got off to a relatively slow start on Saturday night, and Northern Michigan quickly capitalized.
Midway through the first period, with the puck deep in his own zone, Kowalski sent a clearing pass high off the boards and down the ice. The puck took a funny bounce and went straight to Northern Michigan center Chad Theuer, who was standing alone at the Michigan blue line.
Theuer quickly settled the puck and skated in on a 2-on-1 with linemate Bryce Cockburn, who was streaking down the right wing. Theuer fired the puck underneath a sliding Andy Burnes, who was the lone Michigan defender back on the play across to Cockburn, who redirected the puck past Michigan goaltender Josh Blackburn to give the Wildcats a 1-0 lead at 7:51 of the first.
Getting the first goal “is always big,” Northern Michigan coach Rick Comley said. “Our team struggles to score, so it relaxed everybody a little bit. They were playing catch-up, and they were pressing.”
That one goal proved to be all the Wildcats needed as their defense, led by Kowalski, completely shut the door on Michigan. The Wolverines were unable to establish any offensive rhythm at even strength, but what was most impressive was Northern Michigan”s penalty-killing.
Not only did Michigan”s vaunted powerplay go 0-for-5, but on most of those man advantages, the Wolverines had difficulty even setting up in the offensive zone. Michigan”s powerplay was often left watching helplessly as the Wildcats” penalty-killers effortlessly cleared the puck.
“It was embarrassing out there on the powerplay,” Michigan forward Mark Kosick said. “We couldn”t get anything going tonight, couldn”t even get it set up, and when we did we couldn”t get any shots. It was terrible.”
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this loss for Michigan is the impact it has on the CCHA race. Despite their inconsistency, the Wolverines had clawed to within three points of league-leading Michigan State. But this defeat, coupled with Michigan State”s sweep of Alaska-Fairbanks, dealt the Wolverines” title hopes a serious blow.
“First place is a longshot now,” Berenson said. “Unless somebody stumbles, we”ve shot ourselves in the foot in that race.”
Friday night”s game went considerably better for Michigan. The Wolverines managed to avoid at least for one night their trend of slow starts and took an early 1-0 lead when Mark Mink beat Northern Michigan goalie Dan Ragusett with a bad-angle shot at 5:01 of the first period.
The Wildcats answered just over two minutes later with a goal from Theuer to tie the game at one. But, Michigan took the lead for good at 15:41 of the first off of a faceoff, Hilbert gained control of the puck and rifled a one-timer past a startled Ragusett to give Michigan a 2-1 lead en route to a 3-1 win.
Despite the victory, the Wolverines couldn”t be satisfied with the overall results.
Another weekend, another ugly chapter in a season full of them.
“We just didn”t show up,” Kosick said. “It”s pretty disappointing.”