With four minutes remaining in Saturday night”s game against Alaska-Fairbanks, and with Michigan trailing by one, the final score from Kalamazoo was announced at Yost Ice Arena: Western Michigan 2, Michigan State 0.
The crowd went wild, knowing that if Michigan could come back from its one-goal deficit to tie or win, it would break its tie with Michigan State at the top of the CCHA and move into sole possession of first place.
“We heard the score announced, and we wanted to pull it out really bad,” Michigan freshman Milan Gajic said.
But the Wolverines were unable to mount a comeback, missing an opportunity to gain an edge over the Spartans before the two clash this Saturday in Ann Arbor. Instead, Michigan State now has a chance to take sole possession of first place before the big game, as it plays at Ferris State tomorrow night.
“We weren”t on a mission tonight,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said after the 3-1 defeat. “We were expecting the game to be easier than it was, and we missed a great opportunity. It”s tough to lose at home, but this was a wake-up call for us.”
For Michigan, it was the second time this season it failed to capitalize on a chance to get a leg-up on its intrastate rival. Michigan had a chance to beat the Spartans at the “Cold War” game to open the conference season, but gave up a goal with 47 seconds left. The game ended in a 3-3 tie.
The Wolverines have had difficulty gaining on the Spartans in crucial situations, both directly and indirectly, in recent years as well.
Last season, an undefeated, No. 1 Michigan team hosted the No. 6 Spartans on Nov. 4, but was shut out 1-0. It was never able to get back to No. 1 after that loss. Then, on Feb. 16, Michigan had a chance to close the five-point gap with Michigan State, but ended up tying Notre Dame 4-4 at home while the Spartans lost to Western Michigan.
The Wolverines still had a chance, trailing by four points with two games remaining against Michigan State. But they lost both those games, finishing in a tie for second place in the CCHA and earning the third seed in the conference tournament.
Last weekend, when Michigan moved into a tie for first with the Spartans, Berenson said that his team wanted to be in the hunt for the CCHA title.
But in order to remain in the hunt and avoid last season”s fate, it is obvious that Michigan will have to capitalize on its opportunities to move ahead of Michigan State.
On Saturday night the Wolverines missed a good one, but they will have a better one this weekend.
Although each team will have 10 CCHA contests remaining after their game, there is an excellent chance that it will be the most crucial battle of the season for both of them. They will meet each other just once more after this Saturday, but that nonconference game does not count toward the CCHA standings.
If the Spartans beat the Bulldogs tomorrow night and then win at Yost on Saturday, they would hold a four-point advantage over Michigan, a gap that would be tough to close. But if the Wolverines can hold off the Spartans and win, they would be no worse than tied for first in the CCHA after the weekend.
“It”ll be a huge game for us,” Berenson said. “It”ll be great for our players, and it will be great for the fans.”