It’s already nine games into the season and the No. 13 Michigan hockey team has yet to sweep a weekend series.
Last year, the Wolverines extended their nation-best streak of 22-consecutive NCAA Tournament berth. They set the pace early in the season, winning their first four games with 24-5 goal differential, registering a pair of sweeps and dropping only one contest through the month of October.
But early this fall, with an injury-prone team and four series behind it, Michigan posts an unimpressive 4-4-1 overall record. It’s been an internal battle defined by lack of chemistry, inconsistent special teams and inexperienced goalies.
It seems like the one-step-forward-two-steps-back tempo as the Wolverines’ offense tries to keep the team afloat with the defense struggling. Michigan has scored a CCHA-high 38 goals (4.22 per game), eight goals better than Miami’s No. 2 scoring offense. But the defensive slips have been a reoccurring setback, surrendering a conference-worst 32 goals (3.56 per game).
“How are you going to win when you’re giving up four goals a game?” asked Michigan coach Red Berenson.
In an effort to compensate, the Wolverines have relied on its roster depth of 15 goal scorers. Paving the way is senior forward A.J. Treais, whose eight goals put him first in the NCAA.
The defensemen have played a sizable role in the surge of offensive production, with nine goals from four different of blueliners. But they’ve sacrificed their duties in the defensive zone in order to contribute offensively.
“Part is everyone buying into playing better defensively,” Berenson said. “We’ve got guys too worried about scoring goals and getting points — that’s how they measure themselves. And we measure them how they’re playing without the puck.”
At the midpoint of the month, Michigan is on pace to duplicate last season’s troublesome November, but without the same six-win cushion.
Last year’s team registered an unremarkable 1-6-1 record in November, dropping four-straight matchups after a shootout loss against Miami. Michigan may be headed in that very direction, following a split weekend against Michigan State.
Looking at the upcoming November schedule, the Wolverines will faceoff against No. 7 Notre Dame, No. 10 Cornell — the Big Red defeated Michigan in the NCAA Midwest Regional in overtime last season — and the reigning national runner-up Ferris State.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, their lone contest against Bowling Green on Nov. 21 looks promising. The Falcons sit second to last in the conference with a poor scoring offense (1.73 goals per game), penalty kill (75 percent) and power play (6.1 percent) units.
But until then, Michigan has to find a way to keep itself from repeating last season’s faults.
“It’s definitely hard,” said senior defenseman Lee Moffie. “You picture the season going a certain way and when it starts turning for the wrong, it’s frustrating. But we’ve been here before in the past. … I’d rather have this happen early in the year than at the end.”
The Wolverines’ year may not be defined by a single month of ice action, but by their splitting-series pattern. Michigan has not won back-to-back games for a sweep in the first third of the regular season.
Since opening the season with a 7-2 finale win over Rochester Institute of Technology, the Wolverines have dropped three-straight closing contests to the RedHawks, Northern Michigan and the Spartans.
It’s a reversing trend from last year’s decision schedule, where the Wolverines fell in only one of 16 series finales, consisting of four tying tallies and 11 wins — three of which were overtime victories over Alaska, Michigan State and the Wildcats.
“This year, we’ve had some pretty good Fridays, then we couldn’t follow through,” Berenson said. “If you’re going to sweep a team, you need to play better than you did Friday.”
Berenson puts partial blame on a sense of overconfidence. After making a rallying comeback against Northern Michigan and slaying the Spartans in the series opener, the Wolverines came into the Saturday games with a different mentality.
“You don’t win by relaxing after the first game and thinking it’s going to be easier the next night,” Berenson said. “Guess what’s going to happen the next night.”
LYNCH PINS ON ‘A’: Berenson expects more from his veteran leaders to keep the “immature” locker room talk at a minimum after an exciting win. With a mixture of personalities among the captains to keep the team levelheaded, the coaches decided to add one more ‘A’ patch to the team.
On Tuesday, senior forward Kevin Lynch led the team stretches during practice on the center of the faceoff dot alongside his new co-captains Treais, Moffie and junior defenseman Mac Bennett.
Lynch was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets as the 56th overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. As a Wolverine, the Grosse Point, Mich. native became a valuable asset to the team with a career total of 28 goals and 24 assists, including this season’s four-game point streak.
“He’s shown that he is one of the leaders on this team, the way he’s played and the way he’s acted” Berenson said. “I think it’s important that we not just reward him, we but add him to our leadership group for the rest of the year.”