DETROIT — Senior captain Luke Glendening stepped to the podium after the Michigan hockey team failed to come back in the CCHA Championship game, falling to Western Michigan, 3-2.
His lips were tight, and his face was drawn. Glendening sat down, the weight of the loss visible on his slumped shoulders. During the press conference, he told the press that the Broncos had knocked his Wolverines out of the CCHA Tournament two years in a row and that he had lost three championship games in the last four years.
Glendening was really, really upset he had lost another.
Sunday afternoon, Michigan learned that it will be playing Cornell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Green Bay, Wisc. During interviews with senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick, the normally-serious Glendening poked his head in and out of the room, smiling and cracking jokes, talking about the challenges of postseason hockey.
The visible transition from frustration over the Broncos to being excited about the next game took less than 15 hours.
For obvious reasons, that’s encouraging for Michigan.
And that’s why losing the CCHA championship was — wait for it — actually a good thing for the Wolverines. Gasp!
Hear me out: not including shootouts, Michigan lost three games in 2012 coming into the CCHA Tournament — that’s out of 14 games over the span of three months. Championship teams lose three games in three months, and championship teams get a few lucky bounces here and there.
Friday night was a perfect example of those bounces, and a perfect example of a game that good teams find a way to win.
Michigan came back to beat Bowling Green in double overtime on Friday, a comeback kick-started by a shot that shouldn’t have been close to going in. Sophomore defenseman Jon Merrill put Michigan on the board after being in a 2-0 hole with a weak, knuckling shot that wobbled like a football thrown by a drunken St. Patrick’s Day reveler. Bowling Green goalie Andrew Hammond had 55 saves that night, but he didn’t see Merrill’s dead duck until it was in the net.
“Let’s face it: We are not that good,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We are not any better than anyone else, but we are not any worse than anyone else. We are right there, whether it is a bounce of the puck or a goal post or a little bit of luck.”
Michigan was in the hole again on Saturday, partially because of fatigue after Friday’s game, and partially because Western Michigan is playing some of the best hockey in the country right now.
This time, they weren’t able to come out of that hole, and that’s the positive of the weekend, as backward as that sounds.
Glendening may have been all smiles on Sunday, but he’s not going to forget about Saturday’s loss the day before any time soon.
“It’s never fun to lose, but I guess we don’t want to have that feeling of defeat again,” he said. “This is the third championship game I have lost, and I definitely don’t want to go through that again.”
Glendening and the Wolverines won’t be thinking about Western Michigan against Cornell, but they will be thinking about what it felt like to lose the Mason Cup. That taste of defeat, the one they felt just three times in three months, isn’t going to disappear.
Winning the Mason Cup would have been a nice finishing point for the regular season, but it wouldn’t have prepared Michigan for the NCAA Tournament the same way Western Michigan did.
The Broncos taught Michigan that it is not invincible, and that it needs more than just lucky bounces to beat a good team this late in the season. Michigan learned that playing from behind against a team with a red-hot goalie is a lot harder than playing with a lead against a red-hot goalie, and you can bet the first period against the Big Red is going to have a lot more spark than the first periods this weekend.
The Mason Cup would have been nice for the trophy case, but in the long run, losing that game was the best thing that could have happened to this team.
Cook can’t wait to try some cheese in Green Bay. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @everettcook