BIG RAPIDS –
Michigan had a storybook ending to its final regular-season game Friday.
Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik hoisted the CCHA championship trophy at center ice after a 5-3 win against Ferris State. And with the Yost Ice Arena lights dimmed, the two highest scorers in the conference skated a slow victory lap, celebrating both their Senior Night and the fact that this season’s team defied everyone’s expectations.
Friday was Michigan’s last regular-season game because what happened the next night at Ferris State didn’t matter. The Wolverines weren’t playing to win. They had little to no motivation. Billy Sauer rested for the playoffs, and even the press took the night off – the usual postgame rush around coach Red Berenson was reduced to one media outlet.
Saturday’s game was no big deal, right?
As unimportant as it may have been, the game again showed that complacency is the Wolverines’ vice. This time, in a 4-3 overtime loss, it was just another game where the team was too loose in the locker room and another letdown when Michigan was focused on a bigger game.
The feeling’s becoming a little too familiar. Michigan’s first conference loss came to CCHA bottom-feeder Ohio State, right after the Wolverines won the College Hockey Showcase for the first time in recent history. Its unacceptable two-point weekend against Northern Michigan came a week before the most hyped series of the season, against then-No. 1 Miami (Ohio).
I’m not implying Saturday’s game had any clout in the standings, because it didn’t. But Michigan did itself a disservice by skidding into the postseason with an overtime loss to a .500 team. The top-ranked Wolverines were a minute and 38 seconds away from leaving with a tie, but that’s still better than skating off the ice to the sound of Ferris State fans pounding on the glass and “overrated” chants.
And in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, Michigan will be playing another basement-dweller. The highest possible seed it will face next weekend is eighth. While looking ahead to an almost-inevitable semifinal matchup the following weekend at Joe Louis Arena, Michigan could fall back into the same lazy mindset.
The Wolverines could have made excuses Saturday. Sauer was resting for the playoffs. Forward Louie Caporusso was sick. But the rest of the lineup was the same as the night before, and it just looked like they didn’t care.
After Michigan’s 3-3 tie against Northern Michigan Feb. 1, Kolarik said, “We took it for granted, and they took it to us.”
Exactly a month later, their lack of desperation and intensity were the same.
This season, the Wolverines have emphasized improvement in every series.
“We’ve been playing better as of lately,” defenseman Mark Mitera said Friday. “It’s one of our goals we can check off this year.”
Not yet. The penalty-killing unit took a giant step back this weekend, allowing three power-play goals Friday and two Saturday.
Yes, the offense was still impressive. Michigan’s still a great team. But it better hope Saturday’s game was its last lackluster effort.
“We’re not going to be a good playoff team based on that game, so you know, we’ve got a little bit of soul searching to do,” Berenson said Saturday.
Michigan will find that talent won’t push it through the postseason. Heart and grit will carry this team, just like they have all season.
The Wolverines showed neither in Big Rapids.
They need to have both every night, or they’re going to choke in the playoffs.
And that’s why Saturday was a big deal.
– Ratkowiak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.