When Nebraska-Omaha got a late second period goal Saturday and cut Michigan’s lead to three, I immediately looked at the clock.
I thought to myself: How much time is left?
I wasn’t asking to uphold the student section tradition — asking the question just before the arena announcer tells the crowd there is one minute remaining in the period. I was asking because I didn’t trust Michigan to hold onto a lead, even a three-goal one. I had no reason to, especially in the regular season.
Last season, the Wolverines consistently let good (and sometimes bad) teams come back on them. Saturday, with the memories of Mercyhurst’s four-goal comeback in the season opener stuck in my head like a Taylor Swift song, I waited for a Maverick goal. A goal at the end of the period is one of the biggest momentum swings in hockey and it was the best chance for visiting Nebraska-Omaha to get into the game.
But with a penalty kill and senior goalie Bryan Hogan’s stop of a breakaway, Michigan got to the end of the period without giving up a goal. Then midway through the third period, junior forward Luke Glendening’s goal sent the game out of reach. Michigan put a good team away.
Finally, this edition of the Wolverines have differentiated themselves from last year’s disastrous regular-season team. Last season, Michigan probably takes another penalty late to go down two men. Last season, Omaha probably scores on a scramble in front.
After Friday night’s loss, Michigan will probably drop from its third spot in the rankings. But Saturday was the first time in the young season the team looked like it belonged in the upper echelon of college hockey.
The Wolverines’ tie on the road in New Hampshire last week looks good on paper, and they had moments in Durham when they looked like a top-ranked team. But senior goalie Shawn Hunwick stole that point while the Wolverine power play got all their goals by going three-for-three on the power play. Besides early in the first period, the Wildcats dominated that game. They ended up out-shooting Michigan by 18 and out-chanced them by a significant margin as well.
Saturday, the Wolverines still got themselves into penalty trouble in the second period, and still made turnovers in their own zone. But good teams score the goal that turns the game into only a survival exercise. And Glendening’s goal, followed by senior Ben Winnett’s did just that. Seven seconds after Winnett’s goal, Nebraska-Omaha’s Brandon Richard threw a sucker punch that ignited a brawl. On its way back to the land of steaks, it was the final act of an Omaha team that had been getting grilled the whole night.
“A 4-1 game is still a game that could be in doubt,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “If we had to kill a couple of penalties and got on our heels and they get one or two, it’s a whole new game.”
I’m not saying the Wolverines are ready to make a national title run. After six games, nobody is. And looking back at Friday night when they gave up four goals to Omaha, they haven’t proven they are even close.
But on Saturday night, they showed a glimpse of the team they were at the end of last season. For 60 minutes, they looked like the team that scored two goals in the third in East Lansing to sweep the best-of-three postseason series with the Spartans. It looked like the team that scored three straight goals to bury Bemidji State in the NCAA Tournament.
To believe Michigan is a top team means to see them do it consistently. And on the road. Downing Ferris State in the Bulldogs’ own building next Friday would be another small step .
Fortunately for the Wolverines, they don’t need to look at a clock. The season has a lot of time left.