EAST LANSING — Judging by the faces of the Michigan hockey team’s players and coaches following Saturday night’s thriller against Michigan State, you would’ve thought the Wolverines had just been swept.
Senior defenseman Greg Pateryn dejectedly iced his shoulder, wincing when asked to recall the waning moments of regulation when Michigan surrendered its late 3-2 advantage.
Michigan coach Red Berenson said “it’s too bad” a shootout had to determine the game, which along with Friday night’s contest in Ann Arbor resembled the rivalry’s hard-hitting battles of yore. Referees ignored their whistles and, for the most part, allowed the teams to duke it out without interruption.
But despite the long faces and bruised egos that darkened the visitors’ locker room at Munn Ice Arena, it wasn’t all bad for the Wolverines. In fact, they won the series.
Michigan clinched the series when it grabbed an extra point after overtime ended with the game still tied. Ironically enough, Michigan State coach Tom Anastos instituted the shootout rule as commissioner of the CCHA, a role he served from 1998 until this spring.
“Who was this crazy guy who came up with this shootout thing?” Anastos joked in his post-game press conference.
On Friday night in Ann Arbor, there was no shortage of thrills. For the first time in over a month, Michigan looked like an NCAA Tournament team in its 4-3 win. The untimely sloppiness that had characterized the Wolverines’ fall to the basement of the conference vanished. And in the second period, something bigger appeared in its place.
Junior forward Chris Brown had barely left the penalty box — his home away from home — when he picked up a loose puck and beat the Spartan netminder in a one-on-one. Four minutes later, freshman forward Alex Guptill picked a pocket of his own and, after a quick deke, finished easily with a backhand — one of the prettier goals the Wolverines have produced all season.
But fortunately for Michigan, you can save those style points for the intermission acts. The Wolverines aren’t known for highlight-reel goals this season. Instead, if Michigan is to make a run in the second half of the season — and this weekend showed it can — it’s going to be about staying hungry.
“Our team’s a better team than we were two weeks ago or two months ago,” Berenson said. “We’re having the chance to play better. We’re doing some things better.”
And that driving force has the greatest potential to nudge Michigan up the CCHA standings as it heads down the stretch.
You know that quote from James Gammon’s character in “Major League”?
“We won a game yesterday. If we win one today, that’s two in a row. If we win one tomorrow, that’s called a winning streak. It has happened before.”
That’s probably how Berenson had been beginning to feel. And he probably had a similar message for his team in the locker room Friday night.
With the disappearance of “want to” — a want to play “Michigan hockey” — came the seven-game winless streak.
And now that it finally might be coming back, how do you make sure it sticks around, especially with an extended break before the Great Lakes Invitational on Dec. 29-30?
That’s something Berenson can’t possibly coach. It has to come straight from the Wolverines’ hearts. That “want to” has to consume them daily — while they’re practicing, on game days, even when they’re “writing exams,” as Berenson says.
And it starts with the leaders. Ignore the fact that this team has two freshmen as its two leading scorers. Guptill and freshman forward Phil Di Giuseppe have never stood before four CCHA Tournament series and known they need to win all of them to make the NCAA Tournament like in 2010.
Senior forward David Wohlberg has.
And this weekend, Wohlberg was finally “the real David Wohlberg” that Berenson promised us all week we’d see.
How did Berenson know he’d finally break out against the Spartans?
Well, through Wohlberg’s caged facemask, you can still clearly make out his eyes. Berenson must have finally seen that hunger in his team.
It’s a shame it took a 4,000-mile trip to Alaska for it to finally come back, but the important thing for this senior class is that it just might be here to stay.
— Slovin can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @MattSlovin.