EAST LANSING — There was something missing from many recent Michigan hockey press conferences — a smile.
But after Friday’s 6-1 win over archrival Michigan State, the players couldn’t help but display them often.
Junior defenseman Chris Summers laughed off questions about his history of scoring success against the Spartans.
Sophomore forward Aaron Palushaj grinned after admitting he didn’t notice that Michigan State goalie Jeff Lerg had been pulled.
And freshman forward David Wohlberg set off a chain of laughter through the room when he compared facing the Spartans to playing against Russia.
The atmosphere was relaxed. It was fun. And it was, well, confident. After a huge blowout win, the Wolverines had no reason to be nervous for the second game of the series.
Except, they most certainly did.
For a team that has hovered around .500 for much of the season, a sweep means so much more than a split.
Forget that an unranked Michigan State rode a nine-game winless streak into the matchup. Throw out records in a huge rivalry game.
“We’ve been an up-and-down team in the first half Friday or Saturday, Saturday or Friday,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said late Saturday night outside of the visiting locker room. “It’s been a long time since we’ve put together a complete weekend. It feels good right now.”
His team had just scored three goals in the final 2:29 of the third period to beat Michigan State, 5-3, and stun the raucous green-and-white crowd.
When the Wolverines punctuated Saturday’s come-from-behind effort with an empty-netter, they could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Trailing for most of the third frame, Michigan seemed destined for another weekend split and another loss at Munn Ice Arena.
But for the first time since beating Ohio State twice on Halloween weekend, the Wolverines did what they were supposed to — sweep the weaker team.
Michigan knows it can’t be a .500 team forever, and this weekend was a step in the right direction. The two victories mean as much as — maybe more than — the win over then-top-ranked Minnesota in the College Hockey Showcase.
There was no major let-up. The Wolverines played two complete games, from start to finish. An inconsistent team showed some consistency.
The Wolverines broke an 0-for-17 stretch on their power play.
They found a starting goalie.
They again halted the Friday loss-Saturday win pattern.
And, of course, they picked up two conference wins, which boosts them up to a tie for fifth in the standings.
Saturday’s press conference at Munn was more serious, business as usual. But the carefree, confident attitude from the day before wasn’t completely gone. It had shown up on the ice, where Michigan came from a goal down twice to claw back into the contest.
The Wolverines said the final six games of the first half of the season would tell them where they stand in the conference. Berenson said last week the series against Michigan State would be a chance for both teams to prove they’re not as bad as their records indicate.
And finally, fans can believe that the Wolverines are better than a .500 team.
Maybe it took playing the Spartans, whom they absolutely hate. Or perhaps, it was simply about time all the parts of Michigan’s game would come together.
No matter what caused it, the end results were smiles. And that confidence must stay if the Wolverines want to continue high-quality hockey going in the second half of the season.
And as Summers said Friday, “It feels pretty damn good.”