With the game puck in hand following his 600th career victory, Michigan coach Red Berenson left no doubt about his expectations for his team after a 5-2 victory over Northern Michigan Friday night.
“I don’t know if they have pucks like this in St. Louis,” Berenson said. “But it would be nice to have one.”
Just 24 hours later, the Michigan hockey team showed it has a long way to go if it wishes to fulfill Berenson’s vision of a Frozen Four victory at St. Louis’s Scottrade Center. After dominating the visiting Wildcats Friday, the Wolverines dropped a 2-1 decision on their home ice Saturday night to split another weekend series – the latest episode of a season-long epidemic of inconsistency.
Northern Michigan set a defensive tone in Saturday’s game from the outset. Even though they failed to notch a shot on goal in the first nine minutes, the Wildcats utilized a high-pressure forecheck to prevent the Wolverines from establishing the offensive rhythm that kept them rolling on Friday night.
On Friday, Michigan jumped out to a 4-0 lead before coasting to a 5-2 victory, giving Berenson his 600th career win.
The series opener continued Michigan’s new trend of third and fourth line scoring – those two lines produced three of the team’s goals.
During Saturday’s game, sophomore Andrew Cogliano played on one of the Wolverines’ power play units, both of which struggled greatly – failing to convert any of its seven chances during Northern Michigan’s victory – under the increased pressure.
“We had a tough time getting it in the zone,” Cogliano said. “When we get to the blue line, we’re dumping it in, but everyone is standing still, so we’re not really getting any pressure in the zone.”
Northern Michigan took control of the game after drawing first blood late in the first period. Junior Mike Santorelli, the Wildcats’ leading scorer, took advantage when Michigan’s neutral zone transition fumbled a puck near center ice. Northern Michigan’s Tim Hartung picked up the puck and dished it off to Santorelli, who skated around Michigan captain Matt Hunwick before neatly slotting it past goaltender Billy Sauer’s glove side.
The Wildcats’ pressure paid off for them again in the second period. After Northern Michigan’s Alan Dorich passed the puck up ice to Hartung. After gaining the offensive zone, Hartung drew the Wolverines defense away from the slot and dropped the puck back to Santorelli. Sitting alone, Santorelli knocked it past Sauer for his league-leading 20th goal of the season with just fewer than nine minutes remaining in the period.
“After that turnover in the neutral zone, I think it was 3-on-3, and one of our guys just went to the wrong player,” Hunwick said. “I think we double covered one player and let (Santorelli) walk in alone. When you leave a guy like that open to shoot, he showed you what he can do with the puck.”
Michigan continued to struggle offensively, but shored up defensively after Santorelli’s second goal. In the Wolverines’ net, goaltender Billy Sauer played well for the third consecutive game, saving 28 of the 30 shots he faced.
Sauer had struggled in the final month of 2006, shaken by an eight-goal onslaught in Minneapolis on Nov. 25. But in three games this week, Sauer stopped 83 of the 87 shots he faced.
“Billy gave us a chance,” Berenson said. “That’s all you can ask from your goalie – that he not bury you and that he give you a chance, and that’s what Billy did tonight. Billy Sauer kept us in the game.”
Unfortunately for the Wolverines it was not enough. Michigan couldn’t generate offense until just 6.5 seconds remained in the game. Michigan won a faceoff to Zaniboni’s right, and the puck found its way to Cogliano, who slapped it in from the high slot.
While the goal prevented the Wolverines from being shut out at home for the first time in almost four years, it did little to erase the sour taste of Northern Michigan’s dominance.
“One goal with six seconds left in the third period is way too little too late,” Hunwick said. “We just didn’t play well tonight. Whether we scored or not doesn’t change the way we played. We just didn’t come out tonight and play the way that we are capable of.”