DETROIT Some things just can”t be explained.
For example, the fact that the Michigan hockey team has not beaten Michigan State in the teams” last six meetings is simply baffling. The Wolverines are 0-4-2 dating back to February of last season, and it looks like they”ll need a miracle of cosmic proportions to end that streak this season.
For some reason, when the maize and blue face off against the green and white, Michigan may “outplay, outshoot and outhustle” the Spartans, but it can”t seem to outscore them.
Prior to Saturday night”s 3-1 Michigan State win at Joe Louis Arena, the teams had tied their two previous meetings this season 3-3 in the “Cold War” at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 6 and 1-1 at Yost Ice Arena just one month ago.
But each of those ties felt like another Michigan State victory another failure by Michigan to score that elusive game-winning goal.
In the 3-3 stalemate, Michigan carried a 3-2 lead into the final minute of regulation, only to allow the tying goal to Michigan State freshman Jim Slater with 47 seconds remaining. Just seconds before Slater scored, Michigan captain Jed Ortmeyer had a chance to clear the puck from the zone, but was unable to do so. In any other game against any other team, Ortmeyer clears that puck, and his team seizes the victory.
At Yost, Michigan clearly dominated the action, doubling the Spartans” shots 43-21. But while constantly pressuring Michigan State goalie Ryan Miller, Michigan needed a perfect shot from freshman Dwight Helminen just to score one time.
In the waning moments of the second period of that game, with the Spartans up 1-0, freshman Eric Werner found himself a few feet away from the goal with Miller out of position, but the defenseman misfired on an open net. Werner”s miss was just one more unexplainable occurrence to add to the ongoing list from the past six games.
After Saturday”s defeat, in which Michigan outshot Michigan State 28-21, it was time to start brainstorming about the Wolverines” woes against legendary coach Ron Mason and his Spartans.
The first hypothesis that came to mind was that Mason”s conservative, trapping, mistake-free style of hockey was getting the best of Michigan coach Red Berenson”s open, high-flying style. In the three games this season, it seemed as if the Spartans confidently sat back and waited for the Wolverines to make mistakes, and then capitalized on the errors that would inevitably come.
Saturday”s game supported that theory completely, as Michigan goalie Josh Blackburn allowed two goals that shouldn”t have found the net, including a tally on what was intended to be a dump into the zone by Michigan State forward Joe Goodenow. The Spartans” third goal came on a lackluster defensive effort by Michigan defenseman Mike Roemensky who instead of knocking Michigan State forward Mike Lalonde to the ice couldn”t decide whether to play the man or the puck and allowed him to send the puck past Blackburn.
The Spartans” philosophy was easy to figure out: Show up, play conservatively, and let Michigan shoot itself in the foot.
But Michigan State made mistakes plenty of them. In fact, it made enough mistakes to make Mason admit that his team didn”t play much defense Saturday. Michigan had several point-blank scoring opportunities in the second period, and had even more against this vaunted Michigan State defense at Yost in the 1-1 tie.
In the third period on Saturday, Michigan freshman Jason Ryznar received a pass in the crease, but couldn”t get anything on his shot, which allowed Miller to recover and make the save. If Ryznar had hit the puck any harder, the score would have been tied 2-2.
Do teams that don”t make mistakes screw up chances like that?
Michigan State defender John-Michael Liles said that he felt like Michigan outshooting his team didn”t mean much because his team didn”t allow many grade-A scoring chances.
If that”s the Michigan State grading scale, it better readjust the curve, because Michigan had at least five grade-As in the second period and a few more in the third.
All season long, in its losses, Michigan has cited the infamous “bounces” as the major reason for each loss “We just didn”t get the bounces tonight” can be heard throughout post-game interviews.
And Michigan is right. It didn”t get the bounces Saturday. In fact, just about every bounce imaginable went against in Michigan State”s favor.
But this excuse should not be accepted not after six straight games against the Spartans in which the Wolverines didn”t get those pesky bounces.
Michigan”s troubles against Michigan State right now are deeper than bounces. They”re all mental. Instead of playing the puck and scooping it into his glove with ease, Blackburn sat back on his heels and was played by the puck. Instead of making a routine play and hitting Lalonde or knocking the puck away with his stick, Roemensky decided to practice his waltz with the freshman.
Those things don”t happen against Alaska-Fairbanks and Nebraska-Omaha, the third and fourth-place teams in the CCHA. They happen against Michigan State, and the reason for this can be found in one place the mind of each Wolverine.
Maybe Michigan puts too much pressure on itself to score against the Spartans, so when the opportunity comes, it freezes up. Maybe the Wolverines are so worried about losing to their rivals that they forget to use their natural instincts.
With a potential matchup against the Spartans in the CCHA tournament looming, Michigan needs to dig deep and figure this problem out.
Or, it can continue to go back to its old excuse and pray to the bounce gods for mercy.