EAST LANSING — For nearly 20 years, the idea of the Michigan hockey team making the NCAA Tournament has been taken for granted.
The Wolverines happen to hold the nation’s longest active streak of tournament appearances.
But the last time the Wolverines held a sub-.500 record through 10 games like they do this season, it was 1986. Michigan coach Red Berenson had only been behind the bench for two full seasons.
Michigan finished a dismal 14-25-1 that year. Obviously, the Wolverines didn’t make the tournament.
Today, with 10 games in the books and the Wolverines boasting a very modest 4-6 record – just the second time that has happened in Berenson’s tenure – Michigan hockey fans shouldn’t give up on this season just yet. But a sub-.500 record should alert them that an NCAA Tournament berth is far from guaranteed this season.
It’s easy to point fingers. The defense was supposed to be this team’s strong point. But on two occasions this weekend, both of which led to goals, Michigan defensemen turned the puck over in the neutral zone and left junior goaltender Bryan Hogan out of position.
And then there’s the power play, where the Wolverines rank 46th out of 58 teams in the NCAA.
Considering Berenson said that this year’s team spent more time practicing special teams than any team he’s ever coached at Michigan, that statistic has to be a major disappointment. Even Berenson called the Wolverines’ power play “one of the weakest in the country.”
But the real reason for this team’s poor play rests squarely on the offense’s shoulders. And as much of a case you can make that “the puck just isn’t going Michigan’s way,” nothing will change the fact that the Wolverines have scored just six goals in six games against ranked opponents.
The Wolverines’ two leading scorers from last year, forwards Louie Caporusso and David Wohlberg, have managed just one goal each this season. Through 10 games last year, the pair had 12 combined goals.
“I think we’re just not that good,” Berenson said about the offense. “We’ve got one returning 20-goal scorer (Caporusso) and he’s got one goal. Outside of that, everybody else is doing what they can, but we don’t have a lot of prolific offensive players.”
There’s no doubting that Michigan has talent on offense, but without someone to set up the Wolverines’ goal-scorers – someone in the mold of Aaron Palushaj, who left for the NHL after last season – scorers like Caporusso and Wohlberg are going to be counted on to make their own plays.
And without a consistent offense, the Wolverines will continue to fall into the trap that they have found themselves in against every upper echelon team this year: fall behind early and then try to claw their way back into the game.
Thus far, it hasn’t been a pattern of success.
Michigan is currently 10th in the CCHA standings, 13 points behind conference leader Michigan State, which also happens to lead the conference in scoring (22 goals). The Spartans boast the NCAA’s second-leading goal-scorer in Corey Tropp and one of the nation’s top-scoring freshmen in Derek Grant. And after Michigan State left the ice on Saturday having swept the Wolverines, it’s clear that they are the state’s best hockey team.
Beyond the Spartans, the CCHA is the class of college hockey this year, with four teams besides Michigan ranked in the top 13.
That means there won’t be any red carpets rolled out for the Wolverines as they try to make their way to the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ll turn it around,” Berenson said. “It’s just a matter of when. It’s like any team, there’s going to be a weak point in your season.”
But when that weak point is the weakest start in 20 years, it may take more than Michigan has needed in Berenson’s tenure to right the ship.