SAULT STE. MARIE — The calendar said January, but the looks on the players’ faces said March.
During a chippy first period, freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba smirked at a particularly frisky opposing forward condescendingly — as if to say, “You’re not worth it.” One road win, the team’s first of the season, wasn’t enough. Junior forward Luke Moffatt’s face after Friday’s game said they wanted more, though they ended up falling short.
Welcome to the new reality for the Michigan hockey team — a 10-game playoff gauntlet, where every night’s a grind, a must-win and a punch in the gut.
And the grand prize?
A chance to make some noise in the actual CCHA playoffs.
With their new win-or-die mentality, the Wolverines weathered the weekend by splitting with Lake Superior State and avoiding, at least temporarily, the league’s cellar that as recently as last weekend seemed to be Michigan’s destiny.
“We decided we’re going to start playing some playoff hockey,” Moffatt said after Friday’s win. “We really decided to bear down, not worry about the standings … just worry about winning some games, like we would in the playoffs.”
This wasn’t a playoff series but the team seemed to treat it like one. It certainly felt like one at times. And with the exception of the final 20 minutes or so of the Saturday night defeat when the offense went into a shell, Michigan was the better team.
But in the CCHA’s swan song, the league seems more volatile than ever (Exhibit A: Bowling Green, which has emerged from the conference’s basement to win three of its last four games, beating Michigan, Notre Dame and Western Michigan). If the regular season is any indication, the playoffs will be a crapshoot, and this team will need all the help it can get to make any sort of run for Joe Louis Arena and the CCHA final four.
And now, all that’s left for Michigan to do is jockey for positioning.
According to www.PlayoffStatus.com, the Wolverines are the second-likeliest team to finish in last place. If the remainder of the season were played out 1000 times, the site predicts Michigan would finish in last 34 percent of the time, ahead of only Michigan State (49 percent).
As it stands currently, the Wolverines would open up the playoffs at seventh-place Ohio State — a seemingly winnable series, though the teams have yet to meet this season. But if the intensity Michigan showed this weekend is a sign of what is to come in the postseason, the number of series that seem winnable grows.
“That’s what we’re trying to do, is get our team into playoff hockey,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We only have 10 games left and we need to play playoff hockey. The season’s going to be a short one if we don’t.”
Ten games left. They could be meaningless — a slow crawl toward the playoffs, where it’ll be put up or an end to the 22-year NCAA Tournament streak.
Instead, it’s time for this team to adjust to a playoff style of hockey. Each penalty will hurt the team a little more, which is why Trouba showed restraint when the much-smaller forward tested him. Each goal can spark a second or a third.
The only way that Michigan will be able to catch lightning in a bottle the rest of the season is if it plays playoff-caliber hockey.
It showed it can this weekend.