It was the kind of play even a casual hockey fan would appreciate.
With less than six seconds remaining in Friday’s first period, sophomore forward Matt Rust intercepted a pass across the Michigan blueline, raced up the right side of the ice and backhanded the puck into the back of the net for a shorthanded goal.
It was flashy, it evened the score, and it sparked the Michigan hockey team heading into the first intermission.
There was only one problem.
The first goal shouldn’t be that hard.
“I don’t think there’s anything stopping us,” Rust said after Friday’s 6-2 win over Lake Superior State. “We’re just getting outworked the first couple of shifts, and I think we’ve just got to make a bigger point of coming out stronger.”
Though the Wolverines eventually handed the Lakers a pair of losses this weekend, they’ve learned wins aren’t everything.
Early in the season, the Wolverines suffered three split series and struggled against the CCHA’s worst teams.
The team simply didn’t show up for Friday night openers.
And in recent weeks, though they’ve come to play — evidenced by three sweeps and a tight split with Notre Dame in the last four weeks — the Wolverines haven’t truly played a full game.
Sixty minutes. Three entire periods. It can be done.
Take this weekend’s sweep of Lake Superior State, for example. Michigan came out flat in the opening frame of each game. The Lakers dominated the game’s pace, scored first and applied constant offensive pressure.
In both contests, a Wolverine goal in the final minute of the first period completely changed the momentum.
But Michigan must learn it can’t wait and wait until someone steps up in a crucial moment. It can’t always rely on a perfect backhanded goal from its penalty-kill unit to give the team a spark.
“I don’t really know what it is,” sophomore center Louie Caporusso said Friday. “(Other teams) have strategies. We kind of adjust as we go along. I think by the second period, we have a feel for (the game). … We’ve got to be ready at the drop of the puck.”
The trend of starting slowly isn’t new. The Wolverines have given up the first goal in 14 of their 30 games thus far. Of those 14, they’ve won just six.
To put that into perspective, Michigan has lost just one game in which it scored first.
Sure, this is a nitpicky problem. If the team is winning even with letdown periods or lapses on the power play, it’s still good, right?
Well, it was fine against a team like Lake Superior State. But as Notre Dame showed the Wolverines, both last weekend and in last April’s Frozen Four game, it doesn’t work against good teams or in the postseason.
I’m not saying that Michigan has played poorly in recent weeks. In fact, the third period against the Fighting Irish two weekends ago was probably one of the best I’ve seen all season.
But through the first two frames, the Wolverines were on their heels, playing somewhat lethargic hockey until their dynamic comeback attempt.
Against the nation’s top competition, that just won’t cut it.
Still, this isn’t a terrible problem to have. For instance, when Miami (Ohio) swept Michigan in November, the Wolverines found the back of the net just once in six periods — that’s a serious issue.
This is just about preparing for the postseason. Michigan wants a top-four seed in the CCHA Tournament, which would guarantee a first-round bye and home-ice advantage in the second round.
To earn that, the Wolverines need to put together solid, 60-minute efforts to beat middle-of-the-pack foes like upcoming opponents Nebraska-Omaha and Ferris State.
That starts with the first drop of the puck.
“When we start playing the top-notch teams in the league again, like in the playoffs, it’s going to be a lot harder to come back in games,” Rust said Friday. “We’re not going to get the bounces I did, lucky me being able to score with (six) seconds left. We’ve got to make a point to just come out stronger and harder and keep the game simple.”
And instead of just saying that, the Wolverines need to do it. Early-game offensive explosions can’t show up sporadically, like in sweeps against rivals Michigan State and Miami last month.
This team has shown it’s more than capable of competing with the nation’s best. But if it can put together a complete game, Michigan might just be able to knock them out.
— Auerbach can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.