OMAHA — As the clock approaches midnight on the Michigan hockey team’s NCAA Tournament hopes, the bell might have rang early. But the Wolverines had to deal with a different kind of ringing last weekend.
In Nebraska-Omaha’s sweep of the 19th-ranked Wolverines this past weekend, amidst a sea of cowbells at the Qwest Center, it wasn’t just the defensive zone turnovers and the odd-man rushes that beat the maize and blue. It was the rapid succession in which Michigan’s defensive corps gave up those kinds of plays.
On Friday, with Michigan leading 1-0, senior defenseman Steve Kampfer picked up the puck in the corner and turned up ice. Three Mavericks pressured him, with one ultimately getting the puck and going one-on-one with junior goalie Bryan Hogan. After faking a shot and going backhand, Nebraska-Omaha’s Joey Martin slid the puck through the five-hole and into the net, inviting the fans in attendance to bang their cowbells wildly for the first of many times on the weekend.
“We don’t want a defenseman trying to beat a guy one-on-one,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said after Friday’s game. “(The forwards) have to work harder to get open so our defense can make the easy play and not a play that can create a turnover. Steve Kampfer is one of our best defensemen and it’s not often that he turns the puck over. It’s one of those nights.”
And maybe the cowbells had an effect. Just over two minutes later, the Mavericks scored again. After junior Tristin Llewellyn was beaten near the blueline, he trailed the three-on-one going toward the Michigan goal. Llewellyn got back just in time to break up the play — and tap the puck into his own net.
On Saturday, the defensive unit lost senior captain Chris Summers to concussion-like symptoms, but the slightly different personnel earned the same results.
Down 2-0 and with the game still within reach for the Wolverines in the third, Nebraska-Omaha grabbed its own dump-in and sent a cross-ice pass which led to a two-on-one. A one-timer later, the puck was past Hogan.
Before the fans could even sit back into their seats, the Mavericks had another two-on-one. This time a shot to the short side went between Hogan’s pads and the post and all but capped the game, along with Michigan’s hope at an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
“Obviously you want to play defense first and if we get the chance to go we go,” Kampfer said. “Tonight I think we left a couple of times and we turned the puck over and that’s everyone’s fault. We can’t turn the puck over and have four guys trapped and leading to odd-man rushes like we had tonight.”
The odd-man rushes led to Michigan giving up 59 shots on the weekend, the most it has given up since a Halloween-weekend series against Lake Superior State.
That magnitude of defensive breakdown overshadowed a solid weekend for Hogan. Despite giving up eight goals, Hogan kept the Wolverines within striking distance of Nebraska-Omaha up until midway through the third period on Saturday when he gave up the final goal.
“Obviously, we left him out to dry on a couple goals,” Kampfer said. “That’s unfortunate. That’s just lapses on defense and guys coming back. Other than that I thought Hogan battled hard and gave us a chance. We just didn’t give him the support we needed.”
Support for Hogan will need to increase if Michigan wants to return to where it was before the weekend: fourth place and a first-round bye in the conference tournament. Despite dropping to seventh in the CCHA, the Wolverines sit just six points out of second place.
But there is one positive they can look forward to as they head into the final two series of the season — there won’t be as many cowbells.