The Michigan hockey team was elated after Saturday night’s 6-2 spanking of Northern Michigan.

How could it not be? All the traditional trends for the season seemed to have dissipated. Instead of allowing six goals, the Wolverines were finally the ones to score that many. There was no collapse somewhere between the middle of the second period and the start of the third. Michigan coach Red Berenson and the players gushed about how Saturday’s game — the one that propelled Michigan to the second round of the CCHA playoffs — was the best it’s played all year.

That’s all well and good, and it’s nice to let the Wolverines enjoy this win. After all, a month ago, who honestly expected Michigan to be standing where it is now?

But don’t let the thrill of Saturday’s victory and the anticipation of more playoff hockey detract from the more important aspect of the weekend: Friday night.

Entering this weekend’s matchup riding the coattails of two consecutive sweeps, how could Michigan not be feeling on the top of the world?

But Friday night put the Wolverines in their place. It was a reality check. And a big one at that.

To be honest, the Wolverines were lucky to walk away with the 3-2 win. After coming in hot with a quick succession of three goals in the first period, Michigan then reverted back to its old ways. Though the defense recovered by the final stanza, it played on its heels for most of the night and let the Wildcats back in the game.

“We were losing every footrace, every battle (and) every faceoff,” Berenson said. “They thought they were playing hard, but they weren’t playing desperate. There’s a difference.”

Friday was the biggest test of the season. Could the Wolverines finally finish off what they had started without any self-inflicted harm?

Yes, they could. And without that challenge, they couldn’t have gotten to Saturday’s blowout.

It helped a little that Northern Michigan was hurting offensively after losing its top scorer to a broken leg last week (before this weekend, the Wildcats had gone 1-5-1 without senior Matt Thurber), but that’s no excuse. You can bet that whomever Michigan faces in the subsequent rounds of the playoffs won’t be relying on one single playmaker — every skater on the ice will pose a threat.

At last, the Wolverines were cognizant of their shortcomings on Friday night. And whether it’s the do-or-die playoff mentality or the fact that Michigan is finally (dare I say it?) a decent team now, the Wolverines have gotten to the point where they can take a close game like Friday’s and transform that into a blowout the next night.

“I think it was a good time for us to show that when we bear down and want to win a game, we can,” said junior defenseman Mac Bennett. “For us to go out this game and completely bury them, that feels really good, and I think that will definitely transfer over to next weekend.”

If Michigan makes it to Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA semifinals (even though that’s still far down the road right now) it won’t have the best-of-three series as a crutch.

The Wolverines won’t be sitting in the locker room on a Friday night after a narrow win or a loss, thinking about what they can do to completely bury the hatchet in the next game — at that point, it might already be too late.

Michigan is running out of second chances. And the fact that it learned its lesson this weekend is the real highlight of the series.

— Vukelich can be reached at elizavuk@umich.edu or on Twitter @LizVukelich

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