OMAHA – After Michigan earned just one point in two late-season, “must-win” games, there isn’t a whole lot more that captain Andrew Ebbett and his senior classmates can do for this team.
Week in and week out, the Wolverines seem to come away from the weekend disappointed. A split with Alaska-Fairbanks, another with Bowling Green, a loss and two ties against Michigan State, finally a sweep of Western Michigan (over a pair of Tuesday night home-and-home games), two more splits with Ohio State and Lake Superior State and this weekend’s loss and tie against Nebraska-Omaha have left the players shaking their heads, talking about working harder and promising better results the next weekend.
Ebbett and senior alternate captain Brandon Kaleniecki have done their best, digging down deep on the ice, resulting in Kaleniecki’s scrappy goals and Ebbett’s unforgettable forechecking on the penalty kill. And off the ice, they’ve arranged team meetings, usually players-only, trying to inspire change.
After Saturday night’s game, Ebbett was visibly frustrated, as was coach Red Berenson, sophomore Chad Kolarik and everyone else I came across. Once again, the power play failed to convert, most notably in the final minute and a half of regulation and first 30-some seconds of overtime. Kolarik talked about how the team wasn’t working hard enough on the ice.
After talking with a handful of players, I asked junior alternate captain T.J. Hensick what the Wolverines could do differently to improve in the final two games of the regular season and the playoffs.
“We’re sick of these meetings, especially the players-only ones,” Hensick said. “It’s time that we start talking on the ice.”
Hensick hit the nail on the head there. There isn’t a severe lack of effort or sense of urgency – the team certainly knows its situation. But it’s time to take it to the next level, and that transition starts with Hensick.
Ebbett and Kaleniecki have been great all year long. They say the right things, they do the right things. But there’s only so much those two can do. With full knowledge that the seniors will be gone at the end of the year, it’s time for Hensick and junior alternate captain Matt Hunwick to step into larger leadership roles.
Hensick answered that call on Friday when he spearheaded a three-goal comeback to tie the game before a defensive lapse allowed the winning goal nine seconds later.
On top of his two assists, Hensick was noticeably taking charge on the ice. At each faceoff, he went player-to-player, directing them to specific spots and explaining what was going to happen once – yes, once – he won the draw. And it seemed like he won every faceoff in the final 15 minutes of that game.
Hunwick also came to play in those final minutes on Friday night, knocking in two goals after making calculated runs to the back side of the net so that he could redirect Hensick’s passes into the net.
They played well all weekend, but it was in the late stages of Friday’s game that the pair of juniors showed why they were chosen as two of Ebbett’s alternate captains. As next weekend’s series draws closer, both must remember the great example they set for their teammates when they kick it into top gear.
This top gear isn’t trying or working hard – Hensick and Hunwick do that night in and night out. It’s something beyond that. The pair is at its best when they become possessed by the desire to win.
At times, Hensick has looked utterly unstoppable and Hunwick, at his best, looks unbeatable. This combination can only mean a chance to win for the Wolverines.
Michigan wants to secure a first-round bye and home ice for the second round of the CCHA playoffs next weekend. There is one way to assure this – a sweep. After Friday night’s loss, Hensick made it clear he was sick of splitting every weekend.
When the puck drops on Friday night in Big Rapids, let’s hope he remembers just how upset he was and takes his game to the level it was at in the closing minutes of last Friday’s game – a level that only he can take it to.
-James Dowd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org