EAST LANSING Michigan coach Red Berenson walked through the doors of his alma mater in 1984 to restore the storied Michigan hockey program back to where he thought it should be expecting to win every time his team hit the ice, with no exceptions.
But nowadays, instead of expecting victory, it”s more popular to rationalize losing in favor of an upcoming silver lining a supposed “light at the end of the tunnel.”
Typical reactions from players after losses consists of “we didn”t get the bounces” or “we didn”t come ready to play.” A more common refrain is “we just have to come together next week” repeatedly, Michigan has benefitted from losses by other CCHA frontrunners.
In most cases, old aspirations were forgotten and downplayed in favor of new ones.
But when Berenson said this past Thursday night that he couldn”t “guarantee that Michigan is going anywhere” in terms of the NCAA tournament, it”s clear that the Wolverines are running out of silver linings and goals to pursue.
Goal No. 1 CCHA championship
The Wolverines are the defending conference champions, and one of their main goals for the season revolved around adding another banner to the rafters of Yost.
Even though Michigan State didn”t lose for over two months in the middle of the season, the title was still within reach as late as Jan. 27 when Michigan beat the Spartans to move within three points of the top spot.
Despite going 2-3-1 in the following six games and slowly losing ground in the conference race, the Wolverines were comforted by two things they had another shot at the Spartans on March 1 and a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament was still a good possibility.
Goal No. 2 First round bye in NCAAs
Teetering from fourth through sixth place in the Pairwise Rankings a system that mirrors the NCAA tournament”s selection process the Wolverines have controlled their own destiny in regards to receiving an all-important bye in the NCAAs. A bye would put the Wolverines in a position to only have to win one game in order to reach the Frozen Four.
But Michigan”s inability to sweep a weekend series since Jan. 7 against Lake Superior State has cost the Wolverines a chance at a first-round bye. This forced Michigan to revise its goals it now aimed for second place in the CCHA.
Goal No. 3 Second place in CCHA
Once again, the Wolverines were masters of their own fate in the battle for second place. All Michigan had to do was take care of business in its last few games including a pair against last-place Lake Superior. But as captain Geoff Koch has said, committing too many penalties and losing the special-teams battle have cost the Wolverines as of late and put them in their current state as tied for second with Miami.
“We”d like to be second, but, whatever it”s out of our hands,” said senior Mark Kosick. “If we”re in third, we”re in third, we”re just playing someone else at our own rink.”
But it wasn”t out of their hands Michigan gave it away.
The same RedHawks that Michigan beat convincingly in two games this year have gone 9-3-0 down the critical stretch to catch the reeling Wolverines. Michigan has went 5-5-2 in that same period. Although three of those games were against No. 1 Michigan State, they”ve won only one game in their last six on their way to their worst conference finish in over a decade.
At the same time, the highly-skilled Wolverines once again had to watch a polished, disciplined Michigan State team capture the conference title for the third time in four years.
“It”s nice to win league championships, but when its all said and done the only one thing that matters is the playoff championships,” senior assistant captain Dave Huntzicker said after the Spartans received the coveted trophy after beating the Wolverines on Thursday. “Those are the ones that people remember.”
Another loss, another silver lining.
But goals are vanishing in the blink of an eye and in a few short weeks, the only things that Michigan fans may remember are the fading “lights at the end of the tunnel.”
And “lights out” for the Wolverines in the NCAA Tournament.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org