There are times in sporting events when players just have to reach deep down and pull out a little something extra. That determination to refuse to relinquish their grip on the game is what sparks comebacks.
It’s what movies are made of, what Gatorade commercials try to capture and what every competitor relishes.
The Michigan hockey team hadn’t had one of those comeback moments this season until Saturday’s shootout loss against Alaska. The Wolverines found themselves with their backs against the wall after senior Brian Lebler and junior Tristin Llewellyn took penalties within seven seconds of each other early in the second period.
The Nanooks proceeded to take full advantage, scoring two power-play goals and creating a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 lead. To make matters worse, Alaska is notorious for its tough defense, especially when it takes a lead.
When Michigan traveled to Alaska at the beginning of the season to play the Nanooks in Anchorage, the Wolverines gave up the first goal and struggled to beat Alaska’s suffocating defense. Frustrated offensively, Michigan suffered a 2-0 shutout loss.
“The first goal of the game was really important,” Berenson said after the Oct. 9 loss. “And (Alaska), when they got it, they milked it pretty good. They played good (defense). And when they got the second one, that’s all they needed.”
Saturday’s 3-1 lead could easily have been the same recipe for disaster for the Wolverines, but this time it felt different.
The Wolverines held a players-only meeting before the start of the second half of the season. They talked about staying positive when they fall behind and how the team has the ability to come from behind.
“No offense to the coaches, but I think when the players do it themselves, on their own accord, I think we come together, come closer — we understand,” junior forward Louie Caporusso said. “Because at the end of the day, you’re playing for the guy next to you, and when you can all get on the same page, that helps a ton.”
After the team meeting, the results were immediately apparent with a comeback win on Jan. 8 against Western Michigan. Michigan was down 2-1 in the middle of the second period against the Broncos, and the Wolverines fired off three unanswered goals to take the lead, winning the game 4-3.
Alaska was a whole different test for them though, since the Nanooks rely on clogging the neutral zone and sitting back in the defensive zone. That is, quality scoring chances are just not as easy to come by.
Michigan stressed how few scoring chances it would get against Alaska in practice leading up to the weekend series. And Michigan coach Red Berenson thought his team’s improvement in finishing scoring opportunities could be one of the main differences between the teams’ first and second meetings.
The Wolverines weren’t going to have the game handed to them by the Nanooks — Michigan would have to go out and take it from them.
Junior forward Matt Rust started the comeback when he carried the puck behind Alaska’s net and laid it off to freshman Kevin Lynch. The freshman forward was able to get enough of his stick on the puck, with a defenseman in front of him, to beat Alaska’s goalie Scott Greenham for the goal.
Rust was at it again when he won a faceoff late in the third period and sent the puck over to an open Chad Langlais. The junior sent the puck through a crowd of players to cap off Michigan’s comeback.
“We proved to everyone, especially to ourselves and our teammates, that we are a good team,” junior forward Carl Hagelin said. “We just need to believe in ourselves — even though we’re down, we can come back. We’re a strong team, good skaters. If we have a good game, no one should be able to skate with us.”
The rest of the game didn’t go quite the way Michigan wanted — the Wolverines lost 1-0 in a shootout. Michigan couldn’t quite put Alaska away, but, seen as a tie outside the CCHA, the game could mean a lot more for the team.
The Wolverines improved to 0-8-1 when trailing after the second period. That one tie will be a memorable one for the Wolverines and not because it was the first overtime game Michigan has played since the 2007-08 season, and not because it was the Wolverines’ first-ever shootout. It could be remembered as the turning point of their season.
“It’s just another glimpse of confidence, another experience,” Berenson said. “They can talk in the locker room that they can come back. We can come back. We’ve been behind before, and against good defensive teams. So that was a good statement for our team.”