COLUMBUS — Expectations are a funny thing.
They’re tough to live up to and sometimes set too high.
For the Michigan hockey team, expectations haven’t been a laughing matter this year.
After beginning the year with the No. 3 preseason ranking, the team had its sights set high. But after going 6-10-2 in the first half of the season leading up to the Great Lakes Invitational, the goal had moved from winning a national championship to winning more than one game in a series.
After an abysmal 4-0 loss to Michigan Tech in the first game of the GLI, the Wolverines were by no means living up to the expectations of coach Red Berenson, or even the Michigan hockey community.
“I don’t think we’re the team now that we can be,” Berenson said after a victory over Michigan State in the GLI consolation game. “I expect a lot more in the second half.”
But the second half of the season hasn’t been too promising either. The Wolverines struggled through a two-month stretch that saw them finish 3-8. The only bright spot came during a sweep of bottom-dwelling Michigan State — the first time Michigan sang “The Victors,” as it does after every sweep, the entire season.
So to say that Berenson’s, and probably everybody else’s, expectations were pretty low when the Wolverines traveled to Ohio State this past weekend is an understatement. When Michigan surrendered 13 goals while being swept at Notre Dame two weeks ago, there wasn’t a lot of hope — or expectations — against the fourth-place Buckeyes.
But something happened in Columbus, and whatever it was, the Wolverines didn’t play like the second-worst team in the conference: they swept the Buckeyes.
During Michigan’s worst moments this season, Berenson has continually shown frustration in his team’s play. He’s seemed flabbergasted to the point of exhaustion. He knew what kind of team he had, and they weren’t playing like it.
So it makes sense that even after Michigan swept Ohio State this weekend, Berenson couldn’t pinpoint the change, he just wasn’t exhausted.
“For whatever reason, it was a good weekend for us,” he said.
The reason was that the Wolverines played Michigan hockey of old — the kind that’s expected every game.
The defensive-zone coverage, which has been a thorn in Michigan’s side, wasn’t perfect, but it was existent. The Buckeyes weren’t tapping in easy one-timers after missed defensive assignments that have become all too common. And the goaltending was just good enough to keep the Wolverines in the game. As Berenson has said all season, freshman Steve Racine, who hadn’t started a game in net since Jan. 11, made the saves that he should have and then some that he shouldn’t.
And the biggest change came in Michigan’s refusal to quit. During past series, when the Wolverines surrendered a goal, the floodgates always seemed to open, and opposing teams would turn close games into blowouts in a matter of minutes.
On Friday night, the Wolverines took a 2-0 lead into the second intermission. But 57 seconds into the third period, Ohio State scored and the momentum shifted. Having seen Michigan collapse too many times during third periods this year, the expectation was that the game was on the brink of becoming just another blown opportunity.
But it didn’t. The Wolverines got the next goal and after the two teams exchanged goals again late in the period, Michigan ended up winning 5-3. And then a night later, with the game tied at three after two frames, the Wolverines once again had a familiar opportunity to give away the game. Instead, they notched three third-period goals of their own en route to a convincing 6-3 victory and a series sweep.
This was the team that Berenson and Michigan fans everywhere expected at the beginning of the season. This team might not play the best defense in the conference, but not the worst either. This team’s offense scores the impressive goals from the blue line and also the goals resulting from scrums in front of the net.
When asked if this was the team that Berenson expected, he said that “it’s the best we’ve looked.” Even if Berenson won’t directly say it, I will — this was the team we expected. It’s a team that has the skill to win games and the willpower to not lose them.