DETROIT — The scene outside of
Michigan’s lockerroom in Joe Louis Arena following the
Wolverines’ 1-0 loss to Michigan State on Saturday was a bit
peculiar. Scratch that. It was strange, at times all-out bizarre
— reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode.

Gennaro Filice

At first, the postgame atmosphere seemed normal enough.

Michigan players and coaches faced a trail from the lockerroom
to the bus with the usual roadblocks: family, friends and
journalists. Although they’d just dropped a tough game to the
archrival Spartans, team members agreeably offered analysis for
every inquiring mind.

Jeff Tambellini addressed the media with the utmost respect,
sincerely tackling any question thrown his way.

But it was obvious that the 19-year-old’s attention
centered on something other than the media’s inquiries. And
it wasn’t the possibility of legal brew consumption less than
a mile away across the Detroit River. Rather, Tambellini’s
focus was hindered by the events taking place 230 miles away in
Value City Arena: Miami (Ohio) at Ohio State.

Clinging to just a one-point lead over the RedHawks, the
Wolverines needed a Miami loss to secure an outright CCHA title. A
tie in Value City would split the title, and a Miami win would hand
Michigan a runner-up conference finish for the second year in a
row.

Just before the Michigan game ended, I had overheard that Ohio
State was winning 4-2 at the start of the third.

A reporter next to me asked Tambellini if he knew an updated
score from Columbus.

Tambellini immediately shot back an answer as if he’d been
waiting all of his life for the question: “4-3, Ohio
State.”

Then, it happened — common sense as we know it left the
Joe, and I couldn’t help but think of CBS’s classic
black and white sci-fi mind bender …

“You’re traveling through another dimension, a
dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a
wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.
That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the
Twilight Zone!”

Said Tambellini with a joyous grin: “I’m a big Ohio
State fan right now, I’ll tell you that.”

Fielding Yost barrel-rolled ten times in his grave.

A Michigan player openly supporting the men in scarlet and gray?
Something has definitely gone awry. And Tambellini wasn’t the
only Buckeye bandwagon jumper, either. The entire team shared his
sentiment. They were forced to.

The Wolverines had failed to take care of business in their last
two weeks of action, going 0-3-1, and in doing so, left the door
wide open for the surprising RedHawks.

Michigan was relying on the Buckeyes to deliver an eighth CCHA
title to Red Berenson — kind of like John Kerry asking
President Bush for the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

With their fate in the hands of Brutus and Co., a feeling of
regret began to set in on the Wolverines.

“We had four chances to clinch a championship, a ring for
us, that’s something you dream of — to have so many
chances,” Tambellini said. “I think it might have hurt
us knowing that (prior to the weekend series against Notre Dame) we
had four chances because it’s, ‘Okay, we can pass this
on and pass the next one on,’ and it came back and got
us.”

A few minutes after Tambellini’s pro-Bucknut
pronouncement, a media member received a game update via cell
phone.

“Ohio State 4” … Tambellini’s ears
perked up … “Miami 4.”

Tambellini’s face quickly morphed from comfortable to
concerned.

Other Wolverines made their way to the bus. There was no big
team gathering around a radio or computer in the lockerroom where
everyone could follow the events occurring in Columbus. Players
were upset with their stretch run in the conference season and
seemed as though they were ready to accept whatever fate awaited
them.

“We had it on a silver platter,” alternate captain
Eric Nystrom remorsefully said. “There’s still a chance
we might win the championship, but when you control your own
destiny, you want to make sure you do things right, and the last
few weeks, we haven’t really been bearing down.”

A few minutes later, the final score in Value City exponentially
spread through the hall.

5-4. Ohio State won.

It was nothing like the typical title festivity. There was no
raucous celebration, no championship T-shirt and hat distribution
and definitely no CCHA trophy hoisting (although the prize was
present at the Joe, which would have posed a problem had Miami
prevailed). It was a scene of relief, not triumph.

The last few players, including senior captain Andy Burnes,
scurried toward the bus, showing little outward emotion.

Earning just one point in the regular season’s final two
weeks, the now-CCHA regular season champion Wolverines lucked out.
They escaped the relative disaster of blowing a four-point CCHA
lead in two weeks by relying on the actions of others. They
didn’t get the job done themselves, something true contenders
usually accomplish. Something Michigan usually accomplishes.

“Hopefully we just get (the losses) out of our system; I
don’t know what else to say besides that,” said Burnes,
responding to his team’s skid.

There was nothing else to say. They better get every blemish out
of their system, ’cause it’s playoff time, and
they’re on their own. If Michigan falters in again, it
won’t be able to receive any postgame assistance from their
newfound friends down south.

As Burnes said, “It’s do-or-die time.” This is
usually the time of year when Michigan quits putzing around,
‘turns on the switch’ and returns to the Frozen Four.
But if the Wolverines continue to approach some games
half-heartedly with anything resembling a “we can pass this
one on attitude,” the power source will come up dead.

Gennaro Filice can be reached at
“mailto:gfilice@umich.edu”>gfilice@umich.edu.

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