DETROIT It was one of the most somber celebrations these Wolverines have ever given a goal. Particularly one against the hated Spartans.

Paul Wong
Like Michigan”s CCHA regular-season title hopes, Craig Murray was flattened by a tenacious Michigan State defense en route to a 4-2 loss Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena.<br><br>DANNY MOLOSHOK/Daily

With 21 seconds left in Saturday night”s game, Michigan”s Scott Matzka wristed the puck past Michigan State”s goaltender Ryan Miller to cut the score to 4-2 in favor of the Spartans.

The Wolverines skated over to the bench and pumped fists with their teammates. No hugs, no wide-eyed glee exchanged with linemates.

The response or lack thereof was fitting considering the way that the weekend went. Excellent chances turned into blown opportunities. And the actual hockey was secondary.

On Friday night, No. 1 Michigan State lost to Western Michigan in Kalamazoo, resuming the fight with Michigan for the CCHA regular-season title.

How did Michigan respond to the pressure that resurfaced with the race resuming? Pitifully. The Wolverines tied Notre Dame Friday night the same Notre Dame team that they beat 9-0 in January and lost 4-2 to State in Detroit on Saturday night.

Today, Michigan is essentially out of the running for the CCHA title. It would take a collapse of titanic proportions for Michigan State now six points up with three games to play to lose the race.

So when the Michigan pep band cracked into the Billy Joel song “Pressure” with 6:55 to play on Saturday night, the choice couldn”t have been more fitting.

“But here you are in the ninth, two men

out and three men on, nowhere to look but inside, where we all respond to pressure.”

Pressure has not been a friend to these Wolverines. They spent five days in November as the top-ranked team in the country before losing to the Spartans and subsequently, losing the ranking.

The team has lost winnable game after winnable game, but still was in a position to end on top.

Until Saturday night.

“It”s been a long season and this is our chance to make a run for the CCHA title, and basically, it”s out of reach now,” Matzka said. “You”re disappointed playing that many games and now not even having an opportunity to get it.”

Michigan has made a season out of losses to sub-par teams. In very few cases has the team looked as bad as it did against Ohio State in January. But the Wolverines were still in it.

Since the game ended Saturday night, I”ve been enjoying thinking that choosing to play the Billy Joel song was a conscious decision to comment on the way that the Wolverines blew the opportunity of opportunities. It just makes such perfect sense.

Pressure was coming from everywhere from coach Red Berenson, from inside the players themselves and from the banner that hangs over center-ice at Yost Ice Arena and reads “CCHA Champions 2000.”

It reached a crescendo at 7:35 p.m. on Saturday night when the two intra-state rivals took the ice for the faceoff. The Wolverines had two choices keep the race alive or watch Michigan State win the title chase. Essentially, what”s the difference between second place and fifth place? They both host first-round playoff series.

“We”ve put a lot of pressure on ourselves,” assistant coach Billy Powers said. “We have goals and one of them was to come in first place.

“First place is no longer a goal. We have the CCHA Championship that we want to be in, we want to play for the highest bid we can possibly get. There”s a lot to play for and a lot of hockey left in the season.”

Pressure did this team in. Now it”s going to have to rise to the challenge of the nation”s elite teams.

Like Powers said, only one goal is out of reach. There are still two more the CCHA Tournament and the NCAAs. It”s anybody”s guess how the Wolverines will react.

Jon Schwartz can be reached at jlsz@umich.edu

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