It takes a lot to get Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson to smile.
Friday’s 8-3 win over Nebraska-Omaha? Nope.
“I’m a hard coach to play for and I’m a hard coach to please,” Berenson said after the game.
What about Saturday’s thrilling come-from-behind 4-2 victory, which guaranteed a top-four finish in the CCHA and a bye in the conference tournament? No smile, but he was more upbeat when describing his team’s effort.
Berenson was pleased his players clawed back into the contest after facing a 2-0 deficit and a steady stream of penalties. He offered many criticisms, but one positive comment may have been the most important for Michigan to hear.
“This is team time of the year,” Berenson said. “It doesn’t matter that your leading scorers are the goal-getters. … The team is coming together.”
It’s a far cry from the early games of the season, when just a few forwards scored most of the Wolverines’ goals. But what is happening now — nine different players lit the lamp this weekend — is exactly what the Michigan coaching staff predicted at the beginning of the season: scoring by committee. Everybody is stepping up, and not just on offense.
Saturday’s comeback displayed this whole-hearted effort. Michigan was on the penalty kill for most of the first period, scrambling to block shots and clear pucks. Senior goalie Billy Sauer started for the first time since Jan. 17 and faced an onslaught of tough shots.
It all started with a major penalty called on senior forward Tim Miller for kneeing just six minutes into the contest. Two minutes into the major, a Wolverine boarding penalty gave Nebraska-Omaha a 5-on-3 advantage.
The Mavericks found the back of the net twice within 30 seconds during the stretch. The first goal came off a rebound and beat Sauer glove-side, and the second was a laser that tipped off the netminder’s glove.
Michigan killed another 5-on-3 later in the period and the team took a total of eight penalties in the first 21 minutes of the game. The high number of penalties burdened the Wolverines’ typically solid penalty-kill unit and disrupted the team’s substitution pattern.
“It’s physically and emotionally draining,” sophomore forward Matt Rust said. “Anytime you can’t get your whole team rolling out there, it’s tough. It makes the game so choppy.”
The comeback began late in the second period as the team stopped taking penalties and the offense finally found rhythm on even strength.
“When we’re playing five-on-five, I think we’re a tremendous team,” junior acting captain Chris Summers said. “We stopped playing to the refs, and we started playing our game, and I think that was the biggest difference.”
Two goals with less than five minutes remaining in the second frame knotted the game at two, and Michigan appeared destined for its first overtime of the season after back-and-forth play for most of the third.
But freshman walk-on forward Luke Glendening didn’t let that happen. With 4:28 left in regulation, he streaked up the right side of the ice, received a pass from sophomore forward Louie Caporusso and flicked in the game-winner. Glendening eventually added an empty-netter in the game’s final minute.
“Even though we were two goals down, I think our team was confident that they could get one back and then another one, and that’s kind of what happened,” Berenson said. “I thought our team stayed in the game and played hard despite the officiating and despite the adversity.”
The Wolverines haven’t had many of these types of games. Michigan is just 7-8 on the season when giving up the first goal. Of those victories, many of them included first-period comebacks, not ones in the game’s final minutes.
Rust said this kind of win couldn’t have come at a better time, with a big series against Ohio State next weekend and the postseason looming.
“It’s good to give our team the confidence that we can come back, we can come from behind, we can persevere,” he said.
Michigan clinched a top-four finish in the CCHA with the sweep and Alaska’s loss Friday. The Wolverines will receive a first-round bye and home-ice advantage for the CCHA Tournament quarterfinal round in early March.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll relax. They want to push for a second- or third-place finish, or at least try to maintain the momentum they’ve built up from winning 12 of their last 14 contests.
“This time of year everybody’s good, everybody’s playing hard,” Berenson said. “We can’t just sit back and say, ‘We’ve got more wins than that team, so we’ll beat them.’ You have to go out there and earn it. You have to outwork them, outhit them, outcheck them.
“This is what it’s going to be like every weekend. Hopefully we can take our game to another level.”