Michigan coach Red Berenson said this year’s Great Lakes Invitational field was possibly the deepest he could remember, with the other three teams coming in a combined 31-21-3.
And his team needed to win the tournament in order to even begin thinking about a bigger one.
Wins haven’t come easy so far this season for the Wolverines. They’ve faced trials and tribulations that have left even the most optimistic of fans wondering if that 21-year NCAA Tournament streak might be in jeopardy.
The infamous Upper Peninsula brawl in the game against Northern Michigan bruised goaltender Shawn Hunwick and company’s egos en route to earning just one point in the team’s first CCHA series of the season.
Against Miami (Ohio), the Wolverines had an equally hideous weekend. When Michigan needed its senior leaders the most, they were conspicuously absent, shelving the Wolverines further down the conference standings.
That weekend was followed by a five-game losing streak that took a trip to Alaska to snap. And even there, the Wolverines dropped the opener. It took overtime and a flawless Hunwick performance to snap the skid.
Saying that Michigan has had a roller coaster first half would be like saying Matt Flynn made the Detroit Lions’ defense look only slightly invisible on Sunday.
But during their stay at Joe Louis Arena this weekend, it wasn’t just good hockey. It was “Michigan hockey” — the mistake-free, heads-up brand of play that Berenson stresses.
Passes, like junior defenseman Lee Moffie’s halfway through the championship game’s overtime period, sailed right to the tape of teammate’s sticks. In that instance, sophomore defenseman Kevin Clare easily tapped in the game-winning goal.
“Open net,” Clare said with a shrug, like his second career goal could’ve scored itself.
And those stupid, untimely penalties that have plagued this team constantly? Well, the Wolverines weren’t exactly choir boys, especially against Boston College when junior forward Chris Brown took his obligatory trip to the box and senior defenseman Greg Pateryn visited twice.
But Friday night in the title game against Michigan State, they played with more discipline. And the Spartans, rather, took a devastating penalty that may have cost them the game. With his team leading 2-1 with just over two minutes remaining in the game, Michigan State’s Brett Darnell was penalized for the second time in the third period. When asked if the referees should have swallowed their whistles late in the game, Spartan coach Tom Anastos said they got it right.
“It was a penalty,” Anastos said.
And it was one that allowed the Wolverines to equalize and go on to win.
Shots found twine despite hot goalies and the clock winding down. And Hunwick made sure they didn’t at the other end.
So which Michigan team can we expect to see for the last seven weekends of the regular season? The downtrodden bunch that makes the 2011 tournament run feel like a distant memory? Or the upstart, opportunistic squad that hung a banner at Joe Louis this weekend?
The next three weekends will dictate the answer. A surprisingly hot Lake Superior State team comes to Yost Ice Arena Friday and Saturday. Next weekend, it’s a chance for revenge against CCHA-leading Ohio State. The Buckeyes swept Michigan at Yost in November. The series finale will be outdoors, where the Wolverines dominated last season, this time at Cleveland’s Progressive Field. Then it’s perennial power Notre Dame.
If Michigan had taken care of business in the first half, it could afford itself some series splits. But senior captain Luke Glendening said before the holiday break that they can’t be satisfied with winning one of two.
Playing “Michigan hockey” can make that a reality.
Ditch the shovels and get the brooms out, Yost.
Slovin can be reached via Twitter @MattSlovin or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.