EAST LANSING — When Jared Rutledge was pulled from the net halfway through the third period in Michigan State’s 7-2 slaughter of the Wolverines on Saturday night in favor of Steve Racine, it became very easy to want to blame him for the loss.
Why not? Five goals slipped past the freshman in the first 10 minutes of the game. You could blame that on a bad night, but before this weekend, Rutledge didn’t really have any nights that could be considered good — he was 0-2 in games he’d started.
Rutledge, the big name goalie at the start of the season, had his confidence visibly shaken by his rocky start in the crease and is now fighting for the starting nod with another freshman.
But Michigan coach Red Berenson wants you to know that the Wolverines’ humiliation in East Lansing was nothing to do with the goaltending.
Instead, here’s what it did have to do with: defensive miscues, generally sloppy play and the lack of want-to from the team as a whole.
Berenson said there was no “battle” visible from Michigan, that you couldn’t see the players grinding it out or being smart with the puck. And when asked why these issues were suddenly so pressing to the team, Berenson couldn’t even give a reason.
So pick your poison and find something to blame these woes on if that softens the embarrassment: the blue line that’s second to last in the CCHA in goals allowed per game, the injuries that have depleted the team’s depth or the young players that still get overexcited and haven’t quite figured out the intricacies of college hockey yet.
Blame whatever you want. Just don’t blame the goalies. Because doing that is just the easy way out, ignoring the bigger picture of why this Michigan squad is hovering at a 4-4-1 record.
No one ever said this season that the Wolverines’ strength was in the crease — those days left as soon as Shawn Hunwick did. Berenson always knew that the rest of the team was going to have to compensate for the miscues that inevitably come from rotating between two rookie goaltenders.
The other players and Berenson have skirted around actually putting responsibility for dropped matches on the goalies, Rutledge in particular. It’s clear the Wolverines want him to succeed and it certainly makes their job easier when they have a solid netminder they can rally around.
If the rest of the team wants to give Rutledge (and Racine for that matter) that confidence, then the changes need to start with them. A goalie can be great, but at a minimum he’s only as good as the players in front of him.
Which means the Wolverines need to find that “battle” that Berenson was talking about, and battle hard enough each night that their goalies aren’t taking the heat for any losses. Once Michigan stops faltering from the play of its forwards and defensemen, then, maybe, you can look to the goalies for some answers.
Yes, the weekend was undeniably rough on Rutledge, and he does still have learning to do — as Berenson put it, he has to learn to “suck it up” when it feels like games are sliding away from him.
But for his sake, the rest of the Wolverines have to start sucking it up, too.